Higher Education Strategy Associates

How Sessionals Undermine the Case for Universities

Last year, I wrote a blog post about what sessionals get paid, and how essentially it works out to about what assistant profs get paid for the teaching component of their jobs and that in this sense at least one could argue that sessionals in fact are getting equal pay for work of equal value.

I got a fair bit of hate mail for that one, mostly because people have trouble distinguishing between is-ought arguments.  People seemed to think that because I was pointing out that pay rates for teaching are pretty close for junior profs and sessionals, that everything is therefore hunky-dory.  Not at all.  The heart of the case is that sessionals don’t want to be paid just to teach, they’d like to be paid to do research and all that other scholarly stuff as well.

(Well, some of them would, anyway.  Others have day jobs and are perfectly happy teaching one course a year on the side because it’s fun.  We have no idea how many fall into each category. Remarkably, Statistics Canada is planning on spending a million dollars to count sessionals in Canadian universities but in such a way as to shed absolutely no light on this rather important question.  But I digress: for the moment, let us assume that when we are talking about sessionals, we are talking about those who aspire to full-time academia)

A lot of advocates on behalf of sessionals seem obsessed with arguing their case on “fairness” grounds.  “It’s not fair” that they only get paid to teach while others get paid to teach and research and do whatever the hell service consists of.  To which there is a fairly curt answer, even if most people are too polite to make it: “if you didn’t get hired as a full-time prof, it’s probably because the relevant hiring committee didn’t think you were up to our standards on the whole research thing.”  So this isn’t really a winning argument.

Where universities are much more vulnerable is on the issue of mission.  The whole point of universities – the one thing that gives them their cachet – is that they are supposed to be delivering education in a research-intensive atmosphere.  This is the line of defence that is continually used whenever the issue of offering more degrees in community colleges or polytechnics arises.  “Research-intensive!  Degrees Gotta Be Research-intensive!  Did we mention the Research Intensity thing?”

But given that, why is it that in most of the country’s major universities, over 50% of undergraduate student course-hours are taught by sessionals who are specifically employed so as to not be research-active?

Ok, where the purpose of education is more practice than theory (eg law, nursing, journalism), you probably want a lot of sessionals who are working professionals.  In those programs, sessionals complement the mission.  But in Arts?  Science?  Business?  In those fields, the mere existence of sessionals undermines the case for universities’ exclusivity in undergraduate degree-granting.  And however financially-advantageous sessionals may be to the university (not an unimportant consideration in an era where public support for universities is eroding), long-term this is a far more dangerous problem.

So the real issue re: universities and sessionals is not one of fairness but of hypocrisy.  If sessionals really wanted to put political pressure on institutions, they would make common cause with colleges and polytechnics.  They would ceaselessly demand documents from institutions through Freedom of Information from institutions to determine what percentage of student credit hours are taught by sessionals.  They would use that information to loudly back colleges’ claims for more undergraduate degree-granting powers, because really, what’s the difference?  And eventually, governments would relent because the case for the status quo is really weak.

My guess is that those activists arguing on behalf of sessionals won’t choose this course because their goal is less to smash the system of privileged insiders than it is to join it.    But they’d have a case.  And universities would do well to remember it.

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4 Responses to How Sessionals Undermine the Case for Universities

  1. Ryan Dunch says:

    One important point overlooked here, Alex, is that many sessional contracts actually go to currently-enrolled PhD students. For them, a contract to teach a class as principal instructor is both financial aid and vital professional formation.
    I am currently directing a small program. This year, we have 17 classes being taught by contract instructors. Six of those are taught by longer-term contract instructors, and six by a brand-new PhD from our program who is on the job market this year and very glad of the full-time employment. Five are taught by current doctoral students.
    This is a small sample so it may not be representative across Canadian postsecondaries as to proportions, but I would guess it is not uncommon. Too bad that Statscan’s survey might not bring clarity on these distinctions.

  2. I’ve taught classes as a PhD student and as a contract instructor (euphemistically called ‘associate professor’). I never made anything like $8000 per course, but my teaching was a long time ago, and the rate was roughly proportional.

    I was very happy to get the teaching positions. The money is not nothing. And if I could have put together a good course load of four courses per semester, I would earn $64K, which would be quite reasonable for someone just barely into academia (a full professor, of course, would make more than twice that).

    The problem is, it’s very rare for a student or sessional to ever get a full course load. I’d get one or two courses per semester, which translates into poverty level wages. For PhD students the limit is typically one course, because you’re paid under an assistantship, and you only get one assistantship. So again, you’re looking at poverty-level wages.

    The reason this is the case is that because you’re a student or an academic there is an *expectation* that you will continue to conduct research. So for the most part there just isn’t an opportunity to teach more courses. In my own case, I survived by taking on outside work, with the result that over time my academic career became a sideline.

    So the issue isn’t that they’re making less per course. I’ve never heard anyone say this, or complain about this. The issue is that, overall, the best they can manage is to live in poverty, because of the conditions of employment.

    You also state, “A lot of advocates on behalf of sessionals seem obsessed with arguing their case on “fairness” grounds.” This is also something I’ve never heard. I think it’s important when quoting arguments that you quote real arguments and not just arguments you think people make. Actually cite the person making the argument and quote them directly. You have a habit of expressing very weak straw man versions of arguments you haven’t properly sourced, and it undermines your credibility.

  3. Alex, I must say I am always a bit puzzled by your loathing of faculty. It always sounds… personal. I get that you’re a bottom-line kind of guy and see the economic case first, but I think your comment about complainants wanting to “join privileged insiders” trivializes a lot of the reasons why the sessional situation is damaging. In the unlikely event that I ever got an academic job, I’d be very ill-at-ease with a system that lines my pockets while shutting out talented colleagues, concentrates research agendas in the hands of a few “rockstars,” diminishes morale and campus culture, overworks tenured faculty, and provides students with less than they deserve for their learning. Fairness isn’t just about “I want what you’ve got.” Surely you can appreciate that there are some wider ethical issues here?

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