HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

Category Archives: salaries

November 25

Graduate Income Data Miracle on the Rideau

My friend and colleague Ross Finnie has just published a remarkable series of papers on long-term outcomes from higher education, which everyone needs to go read, stat.

What he’s done is taken 13 years of student data from the University of Ottawa and linked it to income tax data held by Statistics Canada.  That means he can track income patterns by field of study, not over the puny 6-24 month period commonly used by provincial surveys, or the new 36-month standard the National Graduate Survey now uses, but for up to 13 years out.  And guess what?  Those results are pretty good.  After only five years out, all fields of study are averaging at least $60K per year in annual income.  Income does flatten out pretty quickly after that, but by then, of course, people are earning a pretty solid middle-class existence – even the much-maligned Arts grads.

Figure 1: Average Post-Graduation Income of Class of 1998 University of Ottawa Graduates, by Field of Study and Number of Years After Graduation, in Thousands of 2011 Constant Dollars

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One of the brilliant things about this data set is that you can not only compare across fields of study in a single cohort, but also you can compare across years for a single field of study.  Finnie’s data shows that in Math/Science, Humanities, Social Science, and Health, income pathways did not vary much between one cohort and another: a 2008 History grad had basically the same early income pathway as one from 1998.  In two other fields, though, it was a different story.  The first is Business, where the 1998 cohort clearly had it a lot better than its later counterparts; after two years out, that cohort was making $10K per year more than later ones, a lead that was then maintained for the rest of their career.  In ICT, the fate of various cohorts was even more diverse.

Figure 2: Average Post-Graduation Income, Selected Cohorts of University of Ottawa Engineering/Computer Science Graduates, by Number of Years After Graduation, in Thousands of 2011 Constant Dollars

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This is pretty stunning stuff: thanks to the dot-com bust, the first-year incomes of engineering and computer science graduates in 2004 was exactly half what it was in 2000 ($40,000 vs. $80,000).  If anyone wants to know why kids don’t flock to ICT as a career, consider uncertain returns as a fairly major reason.

Also examined is the question of income by gender:

Figure 3: Average Post-Graduation Income of Class of 1998 University of Ottawa Graduates, by Gender and Number of Years After Graduation, in Thousands of 2011 Constant Dollars

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Two interesting things are at work with respect to gender.  The initial income gap of $10,000 in the first year after graduation gap is almost entirely a field-of-study effect: take out Engineering/Computer Science, and earnings are almost the same.  But after that, the gap widens at a pretty continuous pace for all fields of study.  It’s most pronounced in Business, where top-quartile male incomes really blow the averages out, but the pattern is the same everywhere.  Because of the way the data is collected, it’s impossible to say how much of this reflects differences in labour-market participation and hours worked, and how much of this is differences in hourly pay, but the final result – a gender gap of $20,000 to $25,000 in average earnings, regardless of field of study – is pretty striking.

Are there caveats to this data?  Sure.  It’s just one university, located in a town heavy on government and ICT work.  My guess is that elsewhere, things might not look so good in Humanities and Social Science, and ICT outcomes may be less boom-and-bust-y.  But fortunately, Ross is on this one: he is currently building a consortium of institutions across the country to replicate this process, and build a more comprehensive national picture.

Let me press this point a bit on Ross’ behalf: there is no good reason why every institution in the country should not be part of this consortium.  If your institution is not part of it, ask yourself why.  This is the most important new source of data on education Canada has had in over a decade.  Everyone should contribute to it.

 

 

Nb. One tiny quibble about the papers is that they present everything in monochrome graphic form – no tabular data.  To make the above figures, I’ve had to eyeball the data and re-enter it myself.  Apologies for any deviations from the original.

October 27

The Way Forward on Collective Bargaining

So, last week (here, here, and here) I noted that in most parts of the country, total compensation levels have been running more or less in line with changes to total operating grants.  But this is not a reason to become complacent about university finances and future collective bargaining agreements, for two reasons.

First, what I’ve been showing is that salary mass has been increasing in line with operating income.  But salary mass and salaries are two different things.  If I give very high salary increases, I can keep salary mass down by reducing total staff complement.  That is very clearly starting to happen at some universities, and it’s not necessarily positive.  So there’s that.

Second, all the projections I’ve made have assumed that growth in tuition revenue is going to continue at present rates.  But there are some good reasons to suspect that this won’t be the case.  On one hand, domestic student numbers are already falling in Ontario and the Maritimes, due to demographics.  But more importantly, there’s simply no guarantee we’ll continue to increase tuition revenues from international students the way we have for the last seven or eight years.  And yet, every time another campus signs a big-money salary deal with staff, this is implicitly what the system is banking on.

What most people on Canadian campuses haven’t yet realized is the extent to which the 4.5% annual real increases in total operating budgets have been funded by international students (actually, a lot people don’t even believe that operating budgets have been increasing, but that’s another story).  And to keep those increases going into the future requires that institutions not only to keep the students they have, but also that they maintain a constant rate of growth.

So here’s the deal.  With institutional income increasingly coming from volatile market-based sources, sensitive to changes in demand, and quite possibly headed in the wrong direction, we are ill-served by a collective bargaining culture based on keeping-up with what profs at (insert comparator institution here) got 12 months ago.  That way lies an inflationary spiral.  What really matters is how total operating income is going to grow, and how to ensure salary mass increases don’t crowd out other important educational expenditures.

There is a simple way to do this, and, as I suggested back here, it involves linking pay to institutional income.  Institutions need to start saying publicly, at the outset of negotiations, what their likely income increases are going to be over the next 3-4 years, and make it clear that no settlement will be signed in which salary mass increases are more than this.  If an institution’s total net income is expected to increase by 10%, make it clear that 10% is the most that can be offered to staff.  Within that 10%, many things can be negotiated, of course.  But the bottom line has to link pay to income.

What if income increases more than 10%?  Staff should get their share of any incremental increase, of course.  That way, everyone has an incentive to see total revenues increase – which currently means giving everyone an incentive to be more foreign-student-minded.

Unions might not like this.  And that’s their right.  But then it would also be their responsibility to explain what universities should be cutting if growing paycheques can’t keep up with faltering revenue – publicly, and before the start of any contract negotiations.

September 24

The Math at Windsor

Not only is there strike talk at Laurentian, but there is also a strike in the air at Windsor (a one-day strike was held last week, but a full strike is promised for October 1st if no deal is reached).  Bargaining there began earlier this year, but for whatever reason, no progress was made in negotiations over the spring.  After a conciliator was unable to nudge the two sides closer together, the university was in the legal position to impose its offer on the faculty, which it did in early July. This was a canny piece of timing: by doing this in the summer, the university deprived the union of an immediate strike threat (because who cares if profs go on strike in summer?).

This was a rare case of a university playing hardball on timing; and though this may have wrong-footed the union, they’ve responded by making great rhetorical hay out of having a contract imposed on them.  Now, the strike is no longer about petty monetary demands, it’s about the right to collective bargaining.  Yay, righteousness!  And that’s a big bonus for the union, because if the strike was just about financial proposals, their position would be almost indefensible.

The union position is that the university’s offer – 0%, 0%, and 3% over three years – is inadequate because staff can’t be expected to accept wage increases below inflation.  While that’s one way of framing the institution’s offer, it glosses over the stonking amount of money the university is offering faculty through its Progression Through the Ranks (PTR) system (for a refresher course on PTR, see here).  Under the university’s offer, every single professor (other than those with over 30 years experience) gets an annual pay rise of $2,550.  This isn’t based on merit or anything, the way it is at Alberta or UBC or Waterloo, it’s just for sticking around another year.  On top of that, they get 0%, 0%, 3%.

Now that doesn’t translate easily into a percentage figure because $2,550 represents a different percentage for each professor, depending on their current pay. But let’s take a stab at it based on known average pay by rank.  Current pay figures are unavailable (thanks for cutting the UCASS faculty salary survey, StatsCan!), but I do have them from 4 years ago – they’ve probably gone up slightly since then, but for giggles let’s use them to take a look at what the university offer means if the PTR is included.

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On top of that, there’s something called the “Windsor Salary Scale” – a Windsor-only deal, in place for decades, which means that the Windsor salary scale always rises at the Ontario median.  Based on the past few years’ deals, this would mean average pay rises of another 4% or so (15.4% now for assistant profs, if you’re counting) – though it’s hard to predict exactly, since we don’t know what future salary settlements across Ontario will look like.  On the other hand, professors will also be asked to pay more into their pensions, what with returns being so meagre in our low-interest rate environment.  So let’s call these two a wash and stick with the figures in the table above.

To summarize, this deal – which, recall, had to be imposed – will see nearly all faculty salaries rise by rates well above inflation (in the case of assistant professors, by a factor of two).  The only ones who will not see a rise equal to inflation are that tiny minority (the 30+ years crew) already at the top of the pay grid, and who in most circumstances will be earning over $150,000.

Remember, this is at a university in a region where first-year enrolment fell by 10% this year, and where the regional youth cohort (Windsor-Essex-Chatham-Kent) is set to shrink by 15% or so over the next six years – meaning the institution will receive even fewer tuition dollars, and will receive a declining share of total government grants budget, which, if we’re lucky, will decline by only 3% in real terms over the next three years.

And still the union said no.

September 23

Another Reason to Get Serious About Measuring Workloads

So I see the Laurentian faculty union is threatening to strike.  The main issues are “workload” (they’d like to have lower undergraduate teaching loads to deal with an influx of graduate students) and pay (they’d like to “close the gap” with the rest of Ontario).

This is where the entire system would be well served by having some understanding of what, exactly, everybody is getting paid for.  Obviously, if you’re doing the same amount and type of work as someone else, you’ve got a pretty good claim to parity.  The problem is that what professors do – that is, their expected workload and outputs – can vary significantly from one place to another.

Lets’s take the issue of graduate supervision.  Laurentian profs are doing more of it than they used to – overall, 6% of full-time enrolments at Laurentian were at the graduate level in 2012, up from 4% five years earlier.  But if we’re going to use “the Ontario average” as a goal, it’s worth noting that across the province, 12% of full-time students are graduate students.  So on average, Laurentian professors do only about half as much graduate supervision as other professors across the province – and probably less if we were to weight doctoral supervision more highly.

Well, what about undergraduate teaching – maybe they do more of it that others?  On paper, they teach 3/2 (except in Science and Engineering, where its 2/2).  That’s the same as at most smaller Ontario institutions, and somewhat more than you’d see at larger institutions where 2/2 or even 2/1 is the norm.  But that’s not the whole story: class sizes are smaller at Laurentian.  Sixty-seven per cent of all undergraduate classes at Laurentian are under 30 students, compared to just 51% at York (though, surprisingly, the figure at Queen’s is almost the same as Laurentian – 65%).  But ask yourself: which takes more work, a 2/1 with average class sizes of 60, or a 3/2 with an average class size of 30?  Hard to tell.  But how can you make arguments about “equal pay for equal work” unless you know?

Then there’s research output.  If you use tri-council funding as a metric, and normalize for field of study, Laurentian profs in Science and Engineering are winning about 55% of the national average – higher than Ryerson, but less than half of what Carleton gets.  That’s not too bad.  In humanities and social sciences, however, Laurentian wins only 21% of the national average – about a fifth of what they get at Ottawa, and a third of what they get at Laurier (all data from our Measuring Academic Research in Canada paper, available here.  I could go on with data about publications and citations, but you get the idea: Laurentian professors’ research output isn’t all that close to the provincial average.

To recap: Laurentian is a school where (on average) professors have lower graduate teaching responsibilities and research output than the Ontario average, and an undergraduate teaching load that is higher than average in terms of number of classes, but is arguably lower in terms of total students taught.  So where should their pay be, relative to the provincial average?  Probably somewhere below the average, which indeed is where it is.

But the question for this dispute is: how far below?  Better comparative data, combined with some agreement about the relative weight of different parts of the professorial job, would take a lot of heat out of this debate.

September 12

Hosanna! *More* Graduate Income Data!

Okay, so I goofed on Tuesday.  Contrary to what I said, Colleges Ontario actually does publish sector-wide data on graduate incomes six months out – they just don’t publish it with the rest of the KPI data.  Instead, it’s at the back of the graduate outcomes section of their excellent annual Environment Scan (thanks to Glenn for the heads up).  So let’s take a look at what they say.

On Tuesday we noted that graduate employment outcomes for college graduates six-months out seemed to have taken a bigger knock in the recession than university graduates.  To wit:

Figure 1: Percent of Ontario Graduates Employed Six-Months Out, by Graduating Class

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That said, although employment results have fallen significantly, the picture is somewhat better when you look at the changes in graduate incomes.  Now, looking at “college” outputs is always a bit tricky because colleges offer so many different kinds of credentials.  In Figure 2, we look at change-over-time in incomes for holders of each credential, and also the weighted average for all credentials.

Figure 2: Income of Ontario College Graduates Six-Months After Graduation, by Credential Level, by Graduating Class, in $2011

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In one respect, Figure 2 is about what you’d expect: the longer a college program lasts, the more a college graduate makes (graduate certificates are a partial exception in that they are usually one-year, but they are meant to be delivered after four years of university, so the basic rule still holds).  But it also shows that in real terms, the diplomas, advanced diplomas, and graduate certificates have held their value reasonably well, while certificates have lost 4% (degrees have lost more – 5% – but the numbers there are tiny and therefore subject to a bit more volatility).

Now let’s see how that compares to the six-month numbers at universities, which are below in Figure 3:

Figure 3: Income of Ontario University Graduates Six-Months After Graduation, by Field of Study, by Graduating Class, in $2011

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Figure 3 show a slightly different picture than what we saw with the 2-year out data back on Monday.  Humanities and physical sciences still saw the largest fall, but at six months the 2011 computer science grads were 7% up on the class of 2007 (as opposed to 3% down at the 2-year mark), and overall the decline was 6% (as opposed to 13%).  This implies that the job market for recent graduates actually got significantly worse between 2011 and 2013.

Finally, let’s compare college and university averages.

Figure 4: Income of Ontario College University Graduates Six Months After Graduation, in $2011

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Figure 4 shows – unsurprisingly – that university graduates make more than college graduates six-months out.  But it also shows that college credentials seem to be holding their value better than undergraduate degrees – down just 2%, rather than 6% for universities, over the period 2007-2011.

This is one of those rare cases where employment averages and income averages are moving in different directions.  In one sense, everyone wins: in the near future, expect Ontario universities to promote themselves as a way to a safe job, and Ontario colleges to talk about how their credentials hold their value in bad times.  And they’ll both be correct.

September 08

Some Scary Graduate Income Numbers

Last week, the Council of Ontario Universities put out a media release with the headline “Ontario University Graduates are Getting Jobs”, and trumpeted the results of the annual provincial graduates survey, which showed that 93% of undergraduates had jobs two years after graduation, and their income was $49,398.  Hooray!

But the problem – apart from the fact that it’s not actually 93% of all graduates with jobs, but rather 93% of all graduates who are in the labour market (i.e. excluding those still in school) – is that the COU release neither talks about what’s going on at the field of study level, nor places the data in any kind of historical context.  Being a nerd, I collect these things when they come out each year and put the results in a little excel sheet.  Let’s just say that when you do compare these results to earlier years, things look considerably less rosy.

Let’s start with the employment numbers, which look like this:

Figure 1: Employment Rate of Ontario Graduates 2 Years Out, Classes of 1999 to 2011

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Keep your eye on the class of 2005 – this was the last group to be measured 2 years out before the recession began (i.e. in 2007).  They had overall employment rates of about 97%, meaning that today’s numbers actually represent a 4-point drop from there.  If you really wanted to be mean about it, you could equally say that graduate unemployment in 2013 has doubled since 2007.  But look also at what’s happened to the Arts disciplines: in the first four years of the slowdown, their employment rates fell about two percentage points more than the average (though, since the class of ’09, their employment levels-out).

Still, one might think: employment rates in the 90s – not so bad, given the scale of the recession.  And maybe that’s true.  But take a look at the numbers on income:

Figure 2: Average Income (in $2013) 2 Years After Graduation, Ontario Graduating Classes from 2003-2011, Selected Disciplines

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Figure 2 is unequivocally bad news.  The average in every single discipline is below where it was for the class of 2005.  Across all disciplines, the average is down 13%.  Engineering and Computer Science are down the least, and have made some modest real gains in the last couple of years; for everyone else, the decline is in double-digits.  Business: down 11%.  Humanities: down 20%.  Physical Sciences: down 22% (more evidence that generalizations about STEM disciplines are nonsense).

Now, at this point some of you may be saying: “hey, wait a minute – didn’t you say last year that incomes 2 years out were looking about the same as they did for the class of 2005?”  Well, yes – but you may also recall that a couple of days later I called it back because Statscan did a whoopsie and said: “you know that data we said was two years after graduation?  Actually it’s three years out”.

Basically, the Ontario data is telling us that 2 years out ain’t what it used to be, and the Statscan data is telling us is that three years out is the new two; simply, it now takes 36 months for graduates to reach the point they used to reach in 24.  That’s not a disaster by any means, but it does show that – in Ontario at least – recent graduates are having a tougher time in the recession.

Tomorrow: more lessons in graduate employment data interpretation.

July 28

Coming Soon to Ontario: a British Columbia Solution

Unless you’ve been out of the country, or under a rock, for the last couple of years, you’ll be at least vaguely familiar with the concept that the province of Ontario is broke.  So broke, in fact, that it has departed radically from previous practice and, back in 2012, effectively froze physicians’ pay for two years.  Not individual physicians, of course – but on aggregate.  A zero overall increase.  And the government is now working to try to extend this freeze for another couple of years.

That makes good sense.  Health care costs have historically risen at several percentage points above inflation, and have squeezed other parts of the provincial budget (education has held out OK, all things considered, but other budget lines have been less well-protected), and physician costs are a major item in the health care budget.  And so saving money in this area is to be welcomed, even if it is at the expense of physicians – who are a politically tricky group to offend.

So what might the provincial government think of the post-secondary sector handing its employees raises of 3-4% per year, on aggregate?  Do you think aggrieved doctors won’t point to this anomaly during this pay round?  Can you imagine any possible rejoinder the government could offer that would make the least bit of sense?

Don’t you think maybe this situation is about to come to a rather sudden end?

For whatever reason, universities in Ontario have not been able to resist rising wage pressure from full-time faculty.  Despite money getting tighter, they have felt compelled to sign agreements that are plainly beyond their means (Hel-LO, University of Ottawa!).  Some university presidents, unable to deal with this problem on their own, are saying that they need government to step in to play “bad cop”.

What does the “bad cop” look like?  Well, take a look at how BC has handled wage negotiations over the last few years.  There, universities (and all other public sector entities) are given a biennial mandate with respect to employee negotiations.  In 2010 and 2011, the deal was: negotiate what you like, but the net cost of any new compensation deal cannot exceed zero.  In 2012 and 2013, that was changed to: there could be increases, but they had to be balanced dollar-for-dollar with efficiency savings in other areas.  The 2010-11 arrangements, in conception at least, are close to the approach Ontario has taken with its physicians.  And it worked pretty well, at least in the sense that it has kept costs down with a minimum of political fuss.

Not everyone in Ontario agrees that the province needs to take the bad cop approach.  Quite a number of university presidents (you can probably guess which ones) oppose asking the province to legislate on their behalf; not only do they feel it morally incumbent on universities to manage their own books, but also it is tactical suicide to ask governments to legislate – once you go down that road, there’s no telling where they’ll stop micromanaging universities’ affairs.

The problem is, those presidents haven’t exactly been too successful at reigning-in costs, either (hello again, University of Ottawa!).  So it seems almost inevitable that some sort of BC-like solution is on the cards.  The idea that profs could gain 15% in salary over four years, while physicians get zero, simply isn’t politically tenable.

June 02

Bad Memory

Some really sobering stuff in a paper I just got from Statscan called, “Job Market Realities for Post-Secondary Graduates”.  Listen to this:

  • “Graduates of a field with low unemployment and little underemployment were also likely to earn high salaries and be content with their jobs.  They were usually graduates of job-oriented fields such as engineering, teacher training, most health disciplines, business, computer science and some technologies.”
  • “A more general education in subjects with little practical application often (leads) to a lower-paid job which made little use of knowledge and skills acquired during the years of study… those who fared worst held degrees/diplomas in fine and applied arts, humanities and social sciences and some of the sciences.”
  • “Many trades, which do not require post-secondary education, pay better than some occupations held by postsecondary graduates, especially office work.”
  • “Newfoundland offered the highest starting salaries, with Saskatchewan a close second.”
  • “Half of all bachelor’s graduates planned to go back to school within two years.”

Enraging what decades of neo-liberalism has done to our education system, huh?  Why can’t we go back to the 70s when everyone had a job, humanities and social science graduates weren’t undervalued and everyone had a job?

Oh, wait, hang on.  This survey is from the 1970s!  In fact, all of this is from the two-year follow-up of the university and college graduating classes of 1976 (the forerunner of the current National Graduates Survey).

Turns out the 1970s weren’t quit the bonanza that some folks like Generation Squeeze like to make it out.  For the class of 1976 in Ontario, the unemployment rate 2 years out for university graduates was 8%.  For the class of 2010, it was 5%.  Average salary 2 years out for the class of 1976 was $14,600, or $47,300 in 2012 dollars.  For the class of 2012, the equivalent figure was $49,277.  In 1978, 80% of recent grads said their job had a relationship with their field of study.  In 2012?  82%.

I could go on here, but you get the picture.  There’s very little going on for graduates in the labour market that wasn’t going on forty years ago.  Back then, we were also in a resource boom, and trades looked good compared to Arts and Science.  Jobs in Newfoundland and Saskatchewan looked pretty good compared to jobs in Ontario (we don’t know about Quebec because back during the first PQ government, Quebec institutions weren’t allowed to participate in national studies like this).  This is just a phase we go through.

Of course, some people may look at this result and see stagnation.  Graduates only getting a $2,000 raise in 40 years!   But this is to miss the point almost entirely.  In 1978, the participation rate at Canadian universities was around 10%; we’re now just over 30%.  That is to say, even accounting for population growth, there are three times as many young people getting salaries which, on average, are the same as the coddled, easy-going graduates of the mid-70s.

Nostalgia makes us look at the past with rose-coloured glasses.  But it’s no basis for making policy.  Look past the soft-focus gauze and the rantings of the hell-in-a handbasket crowd: the fact is, our grads are doing as well as they have at any time in the last 40 years.  We should celebrate that.

April 16

Rewind on Those Foley/Green Numbers

So, you may remember that last week I published this neat little graph from the National Graduates Survey, showing university and graduate incomes across all ten provinces, three years after graduation.  Note that although the numbers vary by province, the university number is always higher than the college number.

Median Earnings of College and Bachelor’s Graduates Three Years After Graduation, in 2013

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The super-keen among you may also remember something I wrote three weeks ago, about a paper by Kelly Foley and David Green, which I summarized thusly:

“In Ontario and Quebec, returns to education are what you’d expect: higher for graduate degrees than for Bachelors, which in turn are higher than for college diplomas.  But it turns out that both in the Atlantic and in the West, the returns to college education are actually higher than the returns to university.  Indeed, in western Canada they are even higher than they are for graduate studies.”

How can both be true ?  Basically, it’s because they’re using slightly different definitions of university and college.

Here’s the issue: Foley and Green used the Labour Force Survey data.  That’s quite a different source of data from NGS.  For instance, it includes graduates of foreign universities, who tend to make less than those educated locally. There’s not many of these in the 25-29 category, but it does reduce the university number a bit.

But the major reason is this: Foley and Green included “trades certificates and apprenticeships” in their definition of college.  At one level that’s fair enough, because most (though not all) of the technical training that occurs in apprenticeships occurs in colleges.  But on the other hand, it does obscure some important differences between the two.

Start with income.  Ten years ago, males 25-29 holding trade certificates and college diplomas made almost the same amount; now, there’s an enormous gap.

Median Weekly Wages, Males Aged 25-29

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Now, look at the distribution by region of Foley/Green’s “college” population.  In Ontario, less than 20% of this population holds a trade or apprenticeship credential; in Alberta it’s over 35%.

Distribution of College/Trade Credentials Among Males 25-29, Ontario and Alberta (Source: National Household Survey)

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So, to summarize: Within the Foley/Green description of college graduates there are two distinct groups, one of whom makes more than the other.  And the better-off group is more prevalent in the west than it is in Central Canada.  So it’s not that young Western Canadian male college diploma holders are better off than young Western Canadian male university bachelor’s graduates, it’s that young Western Canadian males who received training in colleges are better off than young Western Canadian male university bachelor’s graduates.

I hope that’s clear.

This college/trade advantage disappears relatively quickly after age 30, but I’ll get to that another time.

March 06

Sessionals

The plight of sessional lecturers (or, as they call them in the US, “adjuncts”) is possibly the only issue in higher education that generates even more overblown rhetoric than tuition fees.  Any time people start evoking slavery as a metaphor, you know perspective has flown the coop.

Though data on sessional numbers in Canada are non-existent, no one disputes that their numbers are rising, and that they are becoming an increasingly central part of major universities’ staffing plans.  In large Ontario universities, it’s not uncommon for certain faculties to have 40-50% of their total credit hours taught by sessionals.  Wage data is scarce, too, though last year University Affairs produced a worthwhile survey on sessionals’ working conditions.  The numbers vary from place to place, but let’s just say that relying solely on sessional wages must be pretty challenging.

A problem in generalizing about sessionals is that they come in two distinct varities.  First are the mid/late-career professionals who already make good money from full-time employment elsewhere, and who help provide relevant, up-to-date content based on practical experience in programs like Law and Nursing.  For them, sessional teaching is a way to pick up an extra cheque, and maybe have some fun doing it. Outside Arts & Science, this is the dominant model of sessionals, and universities are much the better for their presence.

In Arts & Sciences, on the other hand, sessionals are much more likely to be recent PhD graduates looking to get a foothold on the academic ladder.  Unable for the moment to make the tenure track, taking multiple sessional gigs lets them stay within the university system, but prevents them from doing what they (and indeed the entire higher ed system) value most: research.  As a result, being a sessional can sometimes take one further from the tenure track, rather than closer to it.  The sessional “crisis”, needless to say, focuses on this latter group, rather than on the professionals.

What’s truly bizarre about the discourse on sessionals are the frankly conspiratorial views of the cause of the “crisis”.  But there’s no mystery here: universities, for the most part, get paid by governments and students according to how much teaching they do; despite this, they pay their academic staff to spend roughly half their time doing stuff other than teaching.  Unsurprisingly, this results in there being more teaching duties than available teaching time.  Hence the need for sessionals (a need that has only grown larger as research has increased in importance).

And why is their pay so low?  Partly, it’s a free market and there’s a heck of a lot of people willing to do academic work for very little pay.  But partly it’s because institutions have a conscious choice to prioritize pay rises for existing full-time staff (gotta pay more for research excellence!) over hiring new full-time staff. Had pay levels stayed constant in real terms over the last 15 years, and the surplus gone into hiring, the need for sessionals in Arts & Science would be practically nil.

Basically, no one “decided” to create an academic underclass of sessionals.  Rather, they are an emergent property of a system where universities mostly earn money for teaching, but spend a hell of a lot of it doing research.

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