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.