Lauren Klacza, Brock University
“I never imagined myself in this position…where every four months I worry about how I’m going to put food on the table” – 16-year Instructor at Wilfred Laurier University (Basen, 2014)
The plight of part-time contract faculty at postsecondary educational institutions has come to the forefront recently, with faculty from 24 Ontario colleges on strike just this week to protest current working conditions in the system. According to OPSEU (2017), 70% of the instructors at Ontario colleges are contract faculty, which includes “part-time” (less than 6 hours/week), “partial load” (7-12 hours per week) and “sessional” (over 12 hours/week) employees. Some of the employment issues with contract teaching include minimal job security, pay for only teaching hours in the classroom, limited opportunity for job advancement to full-time status, no access to benefits and no sick days (OPSEU, 2017). Striking faculty has also been prominent at Canadian Universities, with faculty strikes in the last few years at York University and University of Toronto over contract faculty working conditions (Levinson King, 2015).
It is clear from the recent strike action by Ontario college faculty that the system isn’t working and that the precarious employment position of so many can make for a challenging learning environment. Will better working conditions equal better learning experiences for students?
Part-time faculty and student experience
There is some evidence that employment status of faculty does not impact student learning in a negative way. Data have indicated that “part-time faculty evidenced neither a weaker instructional capacity nor less overall rigor in their grading, and no significant difference existed in student course evaluations or course grade distribution” (Landrum, 2009). Ronco and Cahill (2004) found little evidence that instructor type had any impact on student outcomes. Part-time instructors seem to be enthusiastic, passionate, and well-educated in their fields. This can be a breath of fresh air for students in their learning experience.
Other research shows a negative impact on student experience when faculty has part-time status. Umbach (2007) found that, compared with full-time faculty members, part-timers advised students less frequently, used active teaching techniques less often, spent less time preparing for class, and were less likely to participate in teaching workshops.
According to OPSEU (2014), a lack of full-time faculty means less time for dealing with students, less time for course and program development, and a greater challenge to maintain academic standards. Also, according to Landrum (2009), part-time faculty have many of the same teaching and grading requirements as full-time faculty but with less institutional support such as offices or university e-mail accounts.
Field, Jones, Stephenson and Khoyetsyan (2016) discuss two types of contract instructors: Classic Sessionals (those that teach for fun for a bit of extra cash, current or retired professionals who have other jobs) and Precarious Sessionals (those reliant upon the income from instructional work). Most of the latter are female, have graduate education credentials, and indicate an aspiration to find a full-time position with employee benefits in the field. Perhaps part time teaching jobs work for some, but for others who aspire for more it is currently a stressful, uphill battle. A study by Maynard and Joseph (2008) states that involuntary part-time faculty (part-time faculty desiring a full-time position) were more dissatisfied with working conditions than voluntary (part-timers that prefer part-time work) and full-time faculty.
The lack of support, resources, and job security for part-time faculty that wish to attain full time employment can make for a stressful and negative work environment, and if employment conditions were improved, experiences for students in and out of the classroom would be bettered as well (Field, Jones, Stephenson and Khoyetsyan, 2016).
Better working conditions to benefit students
Schmidt (2008) postulates that “because colleges are not likely to stop relying on part-time faculty members anytime soon, the key question raised by the latest research is how to make the best of the situation” (Making Do section, para.4). Some solutions Schmidt (2008) mentions include rethinking the classes part-timers are assigned to teach (those with less time commitment) and having them work with populations who are least likely to need help outside the classroom.
Meixner, Kruck and Madden (2010) outline solutions for better working conditions put forward by part-time faculty themselves: engagement with department Chairs and Deans, being included in faculty email communications and events, and pairing part time faculty with a mentor that can help them in navigating resources can go a long way.
Also, outlining expectations for contract faculty at the beginning of employment is key. How many hours are they looking at spending in and out of the classroom realistically? As well, a key area to discuss with staff from the beginning involves what they are looking for from the employment-are they just teaching for “fun” or is full-time employment a goal? Promoting and retaining your most enthusiastic and qualified instructors is key to a better experience for students.
Contract faculty are some of the most enthusiastic teachers you will find, who truly love their students and teaching. Maynard and Joseph (2008) found that “part-time faculty… reported slightly higher emotional commitment to their institutions than full-time faculty” (p. 149). Retaining these instructors and providing a better working environment for staff will impact all who cross their path.
Basen, I. (2014, Sept 7). Most university undergrads now taught by poorly paid part-timers. CBC News. Retrieved from: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/most-university-undergrads-now-taught-by-poorly-paid-part-timers-1.2756024
Field, C. C., Jones, G. A., Stephenson, G., & Khoyetsyan, A. (2014). The “other” university teachers: Non-full-time instructors at Ontario universities. Toronto, ON: Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.
Landrum, R. E. (2009). Are there instructional differences between full-time and part-time faculty? College Teaching, 57, 23–26.
Levinson King, R (2015, Mar 19). Why this is far from Ontario’s last university strike. Toronto Star. Retrieved from: https://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2015/03/19/why-this-is-far-from-ontarios-last-university-strike.html
Maynard, D.C., & Joseph, T.A. (2008). Are all part-time faculty underemployed? The influence of faculty status preference on satisfaction and commitment. Higher Education, 55, 139-154.
Meixner, C., Kruck, S. E., & Madden, L. T. (2010). Inclusion of part-time faculty for the benefit of faculty and students. College Teaching, 58(4), 141-147. doi:10.1080/87567555.2010.484032
OPSEU (2014). Report on education in Ontario colleges. Retrieved from: https://opseu.org/sites/default/files/attachments/%25node%3Atype/caata_roe_fullreport_en.pdf
OPSEU. (2017, Oct 14) College faculty table final offer in a bid to avert strike. Retrieved from: https://opseu.org/news/college-faculty-table-final-offer-bid-avert-strike
Ronco, S. L., & Cahill, J. (2004). Does it matter who’s in the classroom? Effect on instructor type on student retention, achievement and satisfaction. Published in the 44th annual forum of the Association for Institutional Research. Boston, MA.
Schmidt, P. (2008). Use of part-time instructors tied to lower student success. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 12.
Umbach, P. D. (2007). How effective are they? Exploring the impact of contingent faculty on undergraduate education. Review of Higher Education, 30(2), 91-123.