Last week, I wrote a piece about how the professoriate is aging and how these aging professors are taking up an increasing fraction of university budgets. My back of the envelope calculation suggested that for the extra $1.15 billion we are spending on this group compared to 15 years ago, we might be able to hire as many as 10,000 new, younger profs and thus help renew the professoriate.
(To be clear this would not mean 10,000 extra professors, it would mean a little over 5,000 as of course we’d have to lose some professors to free up the money. Still, 5,000 professors would increase total faculty complement across the country by 11% or so, which is not nothing).
Anyway, this finding provoked much debate on the twitters and elsewhere, and many good points were made both pro and con sides of the issue. But marring all those good points was one seriously bad point, one which I hear all the time and needs to be stamped out because it’s killing universities: “even if universities had that $1.15 billion, they wouldn’t hire new FT profs anyway”.
Assuming the average life of a professor is about 33 years, universities should see about 3% of their staff retire in any given year (the churn rate is higher, because people also leave for all kinds of retirement-related reasons, but leave that aside for now). However, as we noted last week, people seem not to be retiring at the rate they used to. So let’s say the retirement rate is actually just 2% per year. So over a given – say – six year span, if universities were not hiring full-time profs to replace retiring professors, we would expect the number of tenured or tenured-track profs to have fallen by about 12%.
But that’s not even vaguely what’s happening at Canadian universities. Figure 1 uses data from Statistics Canada’s UCASS survey from pre- and post- its multi-year hiatus to show the number of full-time tenured and tenure-track profs. Across the country as a whole, the number of professors actually rose slightly. And while the number fell slightly in a number of individual provinces (e.g. Ontario), it fell by nothing like the 12% one would expect if in fact universities were not replacing their retirees. Only in New Brunswick does that narrative seem even slightly true, which one would expect since (as I noted back here) the province’s higher education system has been in full-on disaster mode for several years now.
Figure 1: Change in number of Full-time Academic Staff by Province, 2010-11 vs. 2016-17, Canada and Provinces
Source: CANSIM 477-0017
Well, yeah, some might say, but what about sessionals and part-timers? Those are through the roof, right? Nope. The Canadian Association of University Teachers, in its ever-handy Almanac, regularly publishes a very interesting data cut from the Labour Force Survey. And what it shows is that of the people who say their primary job is teaching at a university, roughly 70% say they are permanent full-time employees and only about 25% say they are on temporary contracts – and those numbers have barely moved in fifteen years.
Figure 2: Academic Staff at Universities by Employment Status and Permanency, Canada, 1998-2014
Source: CAUT Almanac
(OK, yes, the LFS is a somewhat tricky instrument to use for looking at higher education staff, because with a random sample of just 55,000, on average it probably only includes about 150 people who teach in universities, so take the above numbers with a grain of salt. That said, the results seem to be relatively consistent over time, which suggests some degree of reliability).
Some might still try to argue about all those other sessionals, the ones who have outside jobs but are coming in and teaching a course or maybe two per year. Their numbers have skyrocketed, right? Well, first, it’s not entirely clear why we’d worry much about this group (they have other sources of income, they’re probably teaching because they enjoy it and students are getting exposure to people with current professional experience). But more to the point, there’s no evidence these numbers are going up either. We don’t have direct numbers on employment, but thanks to the Financial Information of Universities and Colleges Survey, we do know how much universities are spending from their operating budget on salaries for people in the academic ranks versus what they are spending on salaries for “other instruction and research” (which mainly means sessionals, because people on the research side tend to get paid out of the research budget). If we were seeing a big jump in the use of said type of sessionals, we’d see a big increase in this kind of spending. Here’s the increases for 2015-2016 vs five years earlier:
Figure 3: Real Increase in Aggregate Salary Expenditure, Academic Ranks vs. non-Academic ranks 2015-16 vs. 2010-2011
In short: no evidence of disproportionate increase in use of sessionals, and prof numbers are constant or rising in face of a 10% or so loss in numbers due to retirement.
So why do people believe the opposite?
The answer here is discouraging, but it’s a variant on the point I made back here about disciplinary selfishness. By and large, faculty do not care (or, at least, are blissfully unaware) if the university replaces a permanent academic with another permanent academic. Rather, what matters is whether a whether a department gets to replace them. In this way, the university exercising its basic management function – reallocating staff in response to changing priorities and student enrolments – is transformed into an act of unthinkable bean-counting neo-liberal austerity.
But an honest reading of the data shows that’s just not true. That argument is done, dusted, buried. Let us hear of it no more.