Teachers at a strike rally in Norfolk Photo courtesy of Roger Blackwell

In Ontario this past week, the big news was the election of a Liberal majority to Parliament. This led to a wide-ranging debate on various campaign promises, including the promises about (de)funding higher education. Ontario’s situation mirrors that of many US states, the UK, and Australia: per-capita spending per student is doing down, tuition is rising, and fewer instructors are permanent. According to an OCUFA (Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations) analysis, the new government’s spending plan will likely worsen this situation.

The difficulties faced by temporary instructional staff have been widely documented over the past year. ‘Adjuncts’, ‘sessionals’, ‘instructors’, ‘lecturers’ — whatever the title, the disparities between an ad-hoc instructor and a permanent one are vast. Earlier articles on the rise of the contingent workforce focused on human-rights issues like wages, but these inequities are largely invisible to fellow staff or students. More recent pieces point out that differences in faculty status have a direct impact on students: lecturers have no office space, no time to grade effectively, and are less able to be an aid to their students (even when they want to be). Because temporary labor is often hired for introductory or remedial coursework, this means that students who most need help are less likely to get it.

Blame for the increasing reliance on at-will teaching staff has been passed around: from professorial salaries (or, perhaps more reasonably, retirement plans) to administrative ‘bloat’ to credentialism and anti-intellectualism. None of these can bear the burden on its own; tenured professors don’t always make as much as one might think, nor do all administrative staff take home a six-figure salary (university presidents are another story). But at a time when student debt is increasing and the dominant narrative is about falling education standards, everyone should be concerned about the ‘new faculty majority’ of teachers living paycheck-to-paycheck. A (serious!) article in the Chronicle of Higher Education examined whether Starbucks employees would make more per hour than their adjunct instructors at Arizona State University. And a recent conference on the goals of higher education stressed that “there are negative correlations between student success and adjunct employment,” due to the circumstances of their employment.

Contingent labor in higher education is becoming increasingly common worldwide, with similar results in all modern nations. In Israel, protesting adjuncts refused to release student grades. In Australia, principals are criticizing a tuition increase that they claim is likely to bar smart but poor teenagers from pursuing advanced degrees. At Hofstra University in New York, the provost has taken an official stance on removing tenure. And the United States government has also publicly chastised institutions of higher education for failing to live up to ideals of public service.

The marginalization of teaching as a profession is also hardly limited to higher education. In Milwaukee, employee benefits are being cut to invest in physical education — a worthwhile project, but perhaps not at the expense of other budgetary needs. This is especially true when the district’s focus is on “stem[ming] the exodus of city kids to suburban schools” rather than improving education. A recent examination of education in China points out that high achievement in Shanghai can be attributed in part to professional development activities for teachers. Another study from the Canadian C. D. Howe institute suggests that teacher pay correlates with educational quality (again, as measured by test scores). If the ‘secret’ to successful education is the appropriate allocation of funds, it seems that we are all failing.

About the Author: Jaclyn Neel is a visiting Assistant Professor in Ancient History at York University in Toronto, Ontario.