“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.