Higher Education Strategy Associates

Sessionals: Equal Pay for Equal Work?

Following up on yesterday’s piece about counting sessionals, I thought it would be a useful time to address how sessionals get paid.  Every so often, the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA) issues a press release asking that contract faculty get “equal pay for work of equal value”.  And who could be against that?  But what they don’t say, because no one wants to say this out loud is that, in Canada , adjuncts and sessionals are far from being underpaid: for the most part they actually are compensated fairly.  At least according to the standards of the academy itself.

I know that’s an unpopular opinion, but hear me out.  Think about what the correct comparator to a sessional academic is: it is a junior-rank academic, one who has been given assistant professor status but is not yet tenured.  These days in Canada, average pay for such folks is in the $80,000 range (your mileage may vary based on an institution’s location and prestige).

How much of that $80,000 is specifically for teaching?  Well, within the Canadian academy, there is a rule of thumb that a professor’s time should be spent 40% on teaching, 40% on research and 20% on some hazily-defined notion of service.  So, multiply that out and what you find is that only $32,000 of a new tenure-track prof’s salary is devoted to teaching.

Now break that down per class.   Depending on the institution, a professor is (in theory at least) teaching either four or five semester-long classes per academic year (2/2 or 3/2, in the academic vernacular).  Divide that $32,000 payment for teaching by four and you get $8,000 per one-semester class; divide it by five and you get $6,400.  An “equal work for equal pay” number therefore needs to be somewhere in that range.

Here’s what we know about adjuncts’ salaries: in 2014, the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario published a study on salaries of “non-full-time instructors” in the province.  It showed that sessional instructors’ salaries in 2012/13 ranged from about a little $6,000 per course to a little over $8,000 per course (with inflation, it is likely slightly higher now), with most of the big universities clustered in the low-mid $7,000 range.  At a majority of institutions, sessionals also get health benefits and may participate in a pension plan.  In 2013, University Affairs, the in-house publication of Universities Canada published results on a nine-institution survey of sessional lecturer compensation (see here).  This showed a slightly wider range of compensation rates: at Quebec schools they were comparable to or slightly higher than Ontario rates, while elsewhere they were somewhat below.

To re-cap: if you buy the 40-40-20 logic of professorial pay, most universities in Canada – at least in central Canada – are in fact paying sessionals roughly the same as they are paying early-career tenure-track academics.  In some cases the benefits are not the same, and there may be a case for boosting pay a bit to compensate for that.  But the complaint that sessionals are vastly underpaid for the work they are contracted for?  Hard to sustain.

Sessionals themselves would naturally argue that they do far more than what they are contracted for: they too are staying academically active, doing research, etc.  To which the university response is: fine, but that’s not what we’re paying you for – you’re doing that on your own time.  The fight thus isn’t really about “equal pay”, it’s a fight about the right to be paid for doing research.

And of course OCUFA knows all this.  The math involved is pretty elementary.  It can’t really think these staff are underpaid unless it believes a) that the 40-40-20 thing is wrong and teaching should be a higher % of time and salary (good luck getting that one past the membership) or that sessionals need to be paid not on the same scale as assistant profs but on the scale of associates or full profs (again, I would question the likelihood of OCUFA’s membership thinking this is a good idea).

But if neither of those things is true, why does OCUFA use such language?  It’s a mystery worth pondering.

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3 Responses to Sessionals: Equal Pay for Equal Work?

  1. Kathy Acheson says:

    Just because 40-40-20 is the distribution of value in performance measurement doesn’t mean that it is also the distribution of time spent on those activities. If we imagine that an assistant prof works 47 40 hour weeks a year and teaches four courses, then 40% of the hours is 188 hours per course. Over a 12 week term, that means about 15 hours a week per course. Most university instructors will tell you that we spend about twice that per course, especially if you include work on syllabus and support for delivery. Basically, research is valued more highly than teaching in terms of the hourly rate of pay. Similarly, you will be hard-pressed to find regular faculty who spend 20% of their time doing service. The institution traditionally values contributions to collegial governance, like research, at a higher per-hour rate than teaching.

  2. Aven McMaster says:

    Are a majority of sessionals getting health benefits and a pension plan? That’s interesting to hear; definitely not true at my university, where sessionals get zero benefits. I also agree with Kathy’s comment that the rate of pay for teaching and for research is not notionally equal. But I do agree that focussing the argument on equal pay reduces the discussion to only one element; things like stability and predictability of employment, and working conditions (eg. office space, type of courses taught, administrative support) are very important to sessionals I know personally. And finally, the very notion of divorcing teaching from research — that one can be a good university teacher without doing any research (which is what the notion of “we only pay you to teach, your research is on your own time” boils down to) is (in my opinion) undermining the very basic purpose of the university. And you’re right to point to the numbers if by doing so we can raise the more important issues and get tenure-track faculty and admin to acknowledge them. Focussing on money limits the argument.

    • Alex Usher says:

      I think this is definitely true. Universities more vulnerable on the hypocrisy angle (if universities are better than colleges because it’s a research environment, what’s with not paying the people doing 50% of the undergrad teaching not to research?) than the money angle.

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