Post-Secondary Institutions and Precarious Work

In February, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives released a study of precarious employment in Ontario colleges and universities. Last week, some of the challenges identified in this study became very real when contract workers at York University in Toronto went on strike. The bargaining issues that the union and the university haven’t agreed on include job security for contract workers and guaranteed funding for teaching assistants.

The CCPA report is extremely valuable – not only because its analysis has suddenly become even more relevant, but also because it contains numerical estimates of the amount of precarious work in the post-secondary sector. “Precarious” is generally defined as any form of non-permanent work, which includes, for example, contract work, temporary work, and one person holding multiple part-time jobs.

Assessing the extent to which precarious work is used in Canada’s post-secondary institutions has always been difficult because it’s nearly impossible to get reliable data. I suspect that some institutions don’t want to reveal how many of their jobs are non-permanent. But also, depending on definitions and on when data are collected, non-permanent jobs may not be included or captured in workforce surveys. The CCPA report only covers Ontario, but it’s very useful in demonstrating a methodology for estimating amounts of non-permanent work, by combining different data sets and drawing inferences from the combined information.

An important point in the study is that precarious work is sometimes promoted as a good thing because of its “flexibility” – in other words, non-permanent jobs are important to have because those are the kind of jobs that workers want. But workers may take non-permanent jobs because those are the only kind of jobs that fit with their other commitments, such as family or school, or because those are the only kind of jobs that are available. Statistics Canada data indicate that the reasons for working part-time vary widely between age groups, and also that “other” reasons – which include “business conditions” and “unable to find full-time work” – are among the most common reasons for part-time work for workers or all ages.

It’s definitely an advantage for employers to be able to adjust the size and type of their workforce, depending on the demand for their organization’s products or services –  but that should not be confused with workers allegedly preferring precarious work. If all that’s available is non-permanent work, then workers will take that out of necessity, not because they want it. (The narrative around workforce “flexibility” and the bias toward employers in that narrative is something I plan to explore in more depth in a future blog post.)

Here are some of the key findings from the CCPA study of precarious employment in Ontario post-secondary education:

  • Student enrollment numbers have grown from 1997-98 to 2013-14, but the numbers of jobs at colleges and universities have not grown at the same rate as enrollments.
  • The number of librarians has declined.
  • The number of temporary academic jobs, such as research assistants and teaching assistants [who are usually employed only on short-term contracts], has increased.
  • The number of college and university employees holding multiple jobs at once has increased.
  • The number of non-permanent workers holding multiple jobs at once has increased.
  • Non-permanent workers are working more unpaid overtime.
  • The numbers of permanent academic staff at colleges and full-time university instructors have decreased.

Strike poster from Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 3903, the union representing contract workers at York University. (credit: CUPE 3903 Facebook)

And here are some of the consequences of these changes, both from the report and from my own experience in post-secondary education.

  • Decreased or non-permanent staffing affects the quality of services that are provided to students. This is particularly significant in education, because inadequate staffing in areas such as library services and student services might affect whether a student completes their program, or gets the assistance they need to improve their skills or career prospects.
  • Jobs that were formerly classified as “academic” jobs, such as laboratory assistants in science programs, are being reclassified as “staff” jobs, with lower pay and/or higher workloads. It’s particularly ironic that the quality of academic support for courses is being threatened in this way when so many post-secondary institutions are marketing themselves as “student-centered” and responsive to student needs.
  • Non-permanent staffing, particularly in assigning instructors to courses, is causing unreliability for students and for workers. For example, if enrollments in a course are too low to justify the cost of hiring an instructor, the course may be cancelled on short notice. This makes it difficult for students to complete their programs on time – and also may force them to incur more student loans, if they have to attend for more semesters than they had planned. For instructors, sudden course cancellations may mean losing badly-needed income – or, conversely, having their assigned courses changed right before the courses start may mean they teach courses which they haven’t had adequate time to prepare for.
  • The report indicates that pay rates for non-permanent instructors are so low that many individuals in this job category have to cobble together a living by teaching multiple classes at multiple post-secondary institutions. This is highly stressful for them, not only because of the lack of stability, but because of the expense and time in commuting between workplaces. Their non-permanent employment also reduces their opportunities for professional development and career progress.
  • A lack of stable employment, along with reduced or no access to employment-related benefits, decreases non-permanent employees’ commitment to their employer(s) and post-secondary institution(s). For another perspective on this issue, along with some more excellent statistics and information on the impact of temporary work in the post-secondary sector, Erin Bartram’s recent blog post on deciding to leave academia is well worth a read.

One additional point, from my own observations in post-secondary education, is that an increased reliance on non-permanent faculty and staff also can increase workloads for permanent faculty – especially in those often-unmeasured parts of jobs known as “shadow work”. Every post-secondary institution has tasks that permanent faculty are expected to do outside of teaching – such as being members of committees, building connections with communities and practitioners, and updating programs and courses or developing new ones. There is also administrative work to manage things like travel or research grants. Some non-permanent faculty jobs incorporate some provision or incentive for those faculty members to participate in non-teaching work. But generally, lower numbers of non-permanent faculty members and staff mean that more non-teaching work falls on the permanent faculty members – and that workload is not decreasing either.

It would be very easy to solve most of these problems with one very simple action: increased government funding for post-secondary education.  The percentage of Canadian post-secondary funding that comes from government has frozen or decreased in recent decades, and in many provinces, post-secondary institutions are restricted in how much they can raise tuition fees. As in many organizations, staffing costs (including salaries and benefits) represent a significant portion of post-secondary institutions’ operating costs. So post-secondary institutions, as employers, are forced into making economic choices based on continuing to provide services while also controlling staffing costs. Increased reliance on precarious work in post-secondary education is, at least in part, a result of institutions having to make those choices.

It’s a little hypocritical to criticize post-secondary institutions for their choices as employers, when they may genuinely be doing the best that they can feel they can do in the circumstances. But educational institutions are not just any kind of employer. They provide an extremely valuable service to society and to citizens, by equipping people with the intellectual and practical skills to reach their potential or their dreams, and also equipping those individuals to be able to knowledgeably and thoughtfully participate in their communities and countries. Post-secondary institutions will struggle to achieve those lofty outcomes if there isn’t job security and stability in their own workplaces.

Also, I would argue that, as employers, post-secondary institutions have a responsibility to model the type of employment and work arrangements that should be the norm in society. Precarious work is damaging to individuals and communities, but universities position themselves as forces for positive change in society while increasingly relying on those damaging work arrangements for their own employees. York University’s mission statement includes a commitment to “academic freedom, social justice, accessible education, and collegial self-governance”.  Surely a commitment to “social justice” at the very least would imply working towards stable, rewarding employment opportunities within the university itself.

It might be time for post-secondary institutions to acknowledge that increased precarious work may be a necessity but it is also a problem, and it is not a sustainable or healthy way of operating in the long run. Erin Bartram sums up this idea very well when she says, “Imagining something better requires accepting all the ways that what we have is not good”. If we look at the negative impact of precarious work on post-secondary education, instead of focusing on workplace “flexibility” and the supposed other benefits of non-permanent work, maybe we could do post-secondary education better.

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