Higher Education Strategy Associates


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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19 Responses to Sessionals

  1. Paul says:

    If funding from students and governments is for teaching and we divert 50% to research and other things, is this ethical? Are students the largest source of funding for research in Canada? are they aware of this? should students be allowed to determine how much they invest in research and what research should be funded? are you saying that the post-secondary education funding challenge is because we are being paid for one thing but spending our revenue on something else?

  2. Sean says:

    Your argument hints at a wider disjunction, between how universities (IMHO, correctly) see themselves and how government and public at large see them. An emphasis on the value of a degree has tended to cultivate a public perception of universities as a sort of higher school. On the other hand, what makes universities unique as institutions and what has made them so powerful as forces of technological innovation and social change is the combination of research and teaching.

    This combination is difficult, however, to express numerically. It’s much easier to count bums on seats, then (separately) to count numbers of publications or, worse, add together grant income. As you observed of university ranking generally a while ago, however, a number is not a thing: numbers of students don’t reflect the amount of education, merely the number of students registered. Research funding shows how expensive the research is and how successful the researchers are at grantsmanship, not how truly significant it is. At least as perniciously, such indexes imply that the perfect institution is one with large student numbers and high levels of “research productivity,” but separately. The ideal therefore would be a degree mill located in one of those Stalinist research villages from the 1950s.

    The really pernicious effect of hiring an increasing number of sessionals is to reinforce this distinction between teaching and research, thereby undermining the defining strength of universities. Another, of course, is that it undermines collegial governance to have half the courses taught by hired help rather than respected peers.

  3. Richard says:

    “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”: I know you’ve analyzed this elsewhere, but a wee graph here might be helpful….

  4. Sherman Dorn says:

    That’s a fair point about research universities, but not in places that have no such research ambitions. Adjunctification of community colleges in the U.S. is rampant.

  5. Sean O says:

    Sessionals at some Canadian universities are paid quite well on a per course basis. One I am very familiar with pays about $13 000 for a two semester course (72 hours of instruction). I suspect many others are comparable. So yes an uncertain way to eke out a living but possible to earn some money if one can teach a reasonable number of courses over a year. I am familiar with sessionals who gross over $100 000 per year.

  6. Dave says:

    First, Sean O., I have a hard time believing a sessional can earn 100K+. At 13K per full credit class, that would require 8 classes a year. I managed 5.5 courses at my sessionaling peak, and it nearly killed me. Perhaps the Law and Medicine and Management sessionals pull this off, but not in A&S.

    But my broader point is that this article draws attention to some of the contradictions in a higher “education” system that puts more emphasis on research than teaching, and that downloads much of the educational heavy-lifting to sessionals. The contradictions are often brought into sharp and darkly-amusing relief at times of stress–such as during Faculty labour negotiations–when the existence of sessionals,the very people who allow tenured faculty the time to do their research, is routinely portrayed by tenured faculty as a lowering of standards within the institution. Most sessionals are highly trained scholars, even if mere “hired help”, to borrow a phrase from another post here. If faculty don’t want “lower standards”, perhaps they should research less and teach more–or stop demeaning sessionals and start advocating for fair treatment of sessionals as “respected peers”.

    • Alex Usher says:


    • Dave says:

      Full disclosure here: I am a former sessional who, through hard work and sheer blind luck, has since ascended to a peerage. I’ve seen both sides, and I don’t forget where I came from.

    • Sean says:

      What we should remember is the connection between teaching and research. Nobody should be paid to teach, but not do research, not only because they’ll be underpaid and under-respected, but also because such positions undermine the idea of a university.

      While we’re at it, of course, nobody should be allowed to him or herself to research while hiring someone else to do the teaching.

    • Sean O says:


      i know this for a fact, I have hired people in this category and signed their cheques. It is easier if you can spread the teaching over 3 or 4 semesters. For someone who does no research and is teaching multiple sections of the same courses it’s manageable. It’s not necessarily the best way to do things, and only a small number would be able to pull it off.

      Nominal salary increases for full-time faculty in Ontario have been in the range of 6% per year (when you include both the scale increase and the merit components) for many years (the mid-1990s were the toughest in my experience going back to the 1980s). Many faculty members do not enter the full-time labour market until their late 20s or early 30s, and they likely view the salary increases as catchup for their depressed earnings in their early-mid 20s.

      I believe this level of salary increases will be coming to an end in the next few years, in part because the provincial government now understands how faculty pay is structured and they will find ways to control the increases even if each university negotiates separately with its own faculty union.

      I don’t know if salary control will help sessionals very much going forward. There is so much cost pressure within universities that the likelihood of real increases in the number of full-time positions seem unlikely. There are a lot other cost pressures within universities: the costs of quality assurance, recruiting costs (especially for international) student support, dealing with accommodations: universities have to spend more and more on these cost centres, and those costs are NOT going down.

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