“Most students couldn’t afford to live on what we make”: The grim reality of MUN’s contractual faculty


For many people, ‘professor’ connotes a cushy life of obscure academia and lush pensions. But for the 47% of MUN’s faculty hired on contract, this is far from the truth.

Gerard Collins has been teaching English at Memorial University for 17 years. He holds a Ph.D., a Masters degree, a B.A. a B.Ed., and has been nominated for national and international awards for his writing.

He cares deeply about what he does and is highly regarded among students—the accolades on his Rate My Prof page are resounding.

But Gerard Collins makes $20,000 a year. He has no health benefits, no paid vacation time, and no pension. After nearly two decades as a contractual lecturer at Memorial University, Collins makes less than an employee at McDonald’s—and with less job security. Every semester he has to reapply for a job, and there are no guarantees.

“The attitude from administration most times has been that I’m lucky to have a job. But I don’t see it that way,” said Collins.

“These are men and women with PhDs that took years of constant work to attain. […] Most students couldn’t afford to live on what we make.”

Collins’ situation is not unique. Per-course instructors at MUN earn a base salary of $4,850 per course, before taxes and union fees. They can teach a maximum of two courses per semester, and summer positions are few and far between. Every semester they have to re-apply to teach a course, even if it’s one they have been teaching for years. For a per-course instructor, it’s never a guarantee that they will be employed in four months time.

According to MUN, per-course instructors taught 15 per cent of all courses in 2013. Per-course instructors are not hired based on education level or teaching quality. Rather, they’re based on seniority within the lecturers’ union (LUMUN). A candidate with a PhD has no advantage over one with a fresh master’s degree—and both will get paid exactly the same salary.

If a per-course instructor is lucky, they might get a teaching-term appointment, teaching on a four or eight month contract. Contract faculty become part of a different union, the MUN Faculty Association. They earn higher pay, and if their contract is for more than six months they receive benefits.

But the catch is that teaching term appointments have to teach at least three courses per semester, and are not paid for terms off during the summer. Once their contract is up they again become part of LUMUN and have to re-apply for a job in the fall.

Contractual faculty also teach the bulk of first-year courses, which have high enrolment and a heavy grading workload. This often leaves little time for research and publication, which is critical if professors want to be considered for tenure track positions.

In 2014, out of MUN’s 2,139 faculty staff, 997 were contractual, according to the latest auditor general report.

Meanwhile, full professors at MUN are only required to teach two courses per term, and earn an average of $135,141, according to a 2010 Statistics Canada report. Associate professors come in well over the $100,000 mark, with assistant professors averaging $86,654. They also receive health and dental benefits, paid vacation and sick leave, and a pension plan.

The system at Memorial is not unique. Their circumstances mirror conditions for contract faculty across North America. Recently, contract faculty at the University of Toronto and York University both went on strike demanding better pay, benefits, and job security.

As universities face increasing cuts to funding, they are turning to cheap labour in the form of contract employees who are too concerned about keeping their job to push for change.

And they have reason to be worried; the competition for academic jobs is immense. The Economist reports that in 2007, Canadian universities awarded 4,800 doctorate degrees, but hired only 2,616 new full-time professors.

“Many people who pursue higher education envision tenure-track positions as
their end goal,” said LUMUN President Martha Wells. “If the North American trend of universities relying increasingly on contingent academic labourers continues, universities should better treat their per-course and other contractual faculty.  MUN could become a leader in this,”

All per-course instructors share an office, often making it difficult to meet with students. Collins describes a time when, a few years ago, he returned to his office with an armload of final exams to grade only to be told he had to immediately move. The reason? A tenured prof who no longer taught on campus was in town and needed space for research.

Last year, Collins’ shared office did not have Wi-Fi. As always, he was expected to clear out at the end of the term.

Collins says many of his colleagues share in his discontent, but most do not want to speak out for fear of facing unemployment.

“Even in giving this interview, I could find myself not teaching next fall. I mean, who would even notice?” he said.

Having garnered critical success with his newly published novel, Collins is thankful he does not feel as dependent on contractual teaching anymore. But after nearly two tenuous decades, he is still worried about his future.

“What I really need, after 17 years, is a living wage, some benefits like health and dental, and a pension that is retroactive to when I first started,” said Collins. “I don’t think that’s too much to ask after nearly two decades.”

Per-course instructors ratified their second collective agreement in March 2014.

But after a long period of collective bargaining, LUMUN President Martha Wells says she is not pleased with the results.

“We were in bargaining for almost a year and a half and were able to secure only minor gains,” said Wells. “This employer was absolutely intransigent and clearly undervalues our work.”

Wells says the union is already working on getting members mobilized for the next round of bargaining and is looking into the feasibility of fighting for health and dental benefits.

“I completely agree that per-course instructors, all of whom are well-educated, highly qualified, and dedicated to teaching, deserve better,” said Wells.



  1. If Gerard Collins was not teaching at MUN next semester it would certainly be noticed. Out of all the English courses, his are among the first to fill up. He is a great, dedicated Professor and the fact that he has been teaching for almost twenty years at Memorial and still has to reapply for a position each semester is disgusting. Especially when there are so many less qualified teachers in the English department with tenure.

    I completely agree with Laura Howells on this matter and feel that the per-course instructors should receive better benefits, better pay, better everything. The idea that someone with a stack of final exams can get kicked out of their office because a visiting professor needs space to “do research”, is an appalling thought.

    There are so many amazing professors at Memorial, who are only per-course instructors, that are so dedicated to the students and to making sure that we do as well as we can. I have had a number of per-course instructors, who have blown some of my professors with tenure, out of the water. Memorial should get the professors who care about the students on a solid pay scale versus those whom only care about the dollar.

  2. The sad truth is MUN doesn’t make that much money from tuition. Many of these teacher don’t conduct research, which is how the university is able to secure federal and provincial funding. Given that the bulk of these teachers are teaching course to undergraduate students, since the vast majority of students are undergraduates that don’t conduct research or secure grants, they produce little profit for MUN. Therefore there pay is reflective of their value, in the eyes of the university.

    While I do not support this paradigm, it is understandable why this is the case. MUN is a research institution first and a school second. The only way to change this would be to make the revenue from tuition higher, but this would require the raising of tuition prices, which would cause its own problems. Sadly I think this is something that will unlikely change.

  3. To me the point is clear…Leave that job and go make a proper living at something else more constructive.
    The Canadian university system is abusive to contractual employees but far more abusive to society as a whole. I went to university in the late 70s and the late 90s. My children have gone to university in the 90s and 00s. Nothing changes: Universities collect enormous moneys from gov’ts. and students to deliver only a terrible service of education … overcrowded classes of hundreds of students, taught by people who dont care… Universities mislead countless young into useless degrees that provide no particular training only to a McJob or so… These students get into 10s of thousands of dollars in debt that they will never make sufficient money to pay back and get ahead….
    Supposedly, 50% of funding to universities is for research… But when you consider the number of Canadian universities times half their annual budget, what research results are we getting for the billions of dollars that society pays year after year….???? THis is the biggest scam in the country (most countries are no different)… and we think health care is mismanaged.!!!! And research is great, because there is little to no accountability about it…
    Canadian universities need to be substantially re organized, need to be far more accountable… It will take substantial courage and dedication to change it… So, unfortunately it’s not about to happen.
    The best thing for Gerard and his colleagues to do is to leave that sweat shop and do something more constructive and rewarding.

  4. I think Damian said it all above. Schooling is neither a profit centre or marketing worthy. Research is everything and the only way forward to advancement for profs too. Change the system, or split the entity into a School AND Research centre. Academics appears to be looked at as a necessary duty and can be done to minimum standards. Imagine if banks did not have to deal with customer deposits and savings accounts- they would convert to the business of institutional banking and would close every branch with a public door. (and every teller,manager etc). Then again: http://westernreport.fims.uwo.ca/index.php/western-president-made-924000-last-year/

  5. “Meanwhile, full professors at MUN are only required to teach two courses per term, and earn an average of $135,141, according to a 2010 Statistics Canada report. Associate professors come in well over the $100,000 mark, with assistant professors averaging $86,654.”

    Are these stats for Canadian professors? Seems a bit high for the MUN salaries. Certainly very high for salaries in the English department. I can’t believe that the average salary for an associate prof in English here is well over $100K/a.

  6. Nice article Laura. My one criticism is that you downplay the important distinction between per-course contracts and teaching term contracts.

    Teaching term contracts actually pay pretty well. Those with a few years experience and/or a PhD get paid $76,000 a yearif they work all 12 months. Most teaching term lecturers only work 8 months a year, so they get paid about $51,000 and get Summers off. This is quite a bit less than tenure track faculty make, but it is a decent middle class salary.

    Per course contracts pay much less and are best suited to people who don’t want to teach full time, particularly PhD students/postdocs who want to get some experience (it’s a step up from TAing). The problem comes when people get trapped doing per course work as a full-time career. My sense is that this is a big problem in the English Department, but less of a problem in other departments.

  7. Tom Baird’s last paragraph is on the money. I have taught on a per-course basis for MUN several times, both within and outside of the English department, and it has been a fantastic experience (one which I hope and expect to repeat, in fact). However, I would never consider attempting to string these contracts into a viable career, and they certainly should not be seen as a pathway toward professorship. They are opportunities for service, and they reward their takers with experience and a small measure of prestige. The salary itself is almost like an honorarium: it’s nowhere near sufficient compensation for your time if you do even a half-decent job, but I don’t think it’s really meant to be. The administration does not expect people to make their living by per course contracts.

  8. There is for sure a place for per-course teaching (although MUN pays per-course instructors too little for the labour entailed). As Tom Baird says, per-course teaching gives grad students a chance to get experience and it helps departments deal with stray courses that need an instructor. There is also a place for short term contracts (12-36 months, for example) with decent benefits and a research semester built in to each year. But these should not be allowed to become long-term temporary positions for people, so that people get stuck in a precarious position over the long term. If the university keeps hiring someone on successive contracts, it obviously needs that person’s labour and deems them qualified for the job. At some reasonable point, they should be offered a chance to convert to the tenure stream and have the chance to be made permanent.

    On the question of teaching versus research – in my experience, these are not separate activities. I love both these parts of my job and I think they are mutually reinforcing.

  9. While I don’t support this system I can’t help, but laugh at the hypocrisy of the student body. On one hand we demand more pay for per-course instructors, better buildings, fix the tunnel system, more funding, more equipment, etc. Then on the exact opposite hand we complain about wanting to pay less tuition that the already incredibly low amount we pay.

    If we don’t want to give the school money to do these things how do you expect it to happen?

    You could say just force government to fund more, but the fact is the government can’t just afford to funnel millions more into the school. Also it is mainly provincial funding, and a lot of out of province students – why should Newfoundlanders have to pay more tax money to give a better experience to students who decide to go to school.

  10. In response to the above comment from Student. I think it’s entirely possible to have a system of accessible post-secondary education like our own, and have properly paid instructors/faculty. If you look at the Canadian Association of University Teachers, they are asking for just that.

    I think it does come down to government priorities and where they want to invest for the benefit of our province. And, how about we cut back on the administrative costs in our University. Take a look at the President’s pay here: https://www.mun.ca/president/home/Kach_contract10.pdf. It’s absolutely ridiculous that this person gets paid so much. If the Muse continues writing great articles like this one, maybe they’ll look into where all of the government funding and tuition fees actually go! And where all of the fees for mandatory meal plans for student like me in residence go – I guarantee you it’s not to quality food and is probably towards administrative staff.