What is precarity?

Precarity invokes the image of a desperate climber hanging from the edge of a cliff. Economists are increasingly using this term to describe the stresses created by a job market where employment security is undermined by various corporate outsourcing strategies. “Precarity” is not, however, an image most students normally associate with their professors. Surely possessing society’s most advanced degree equates to economic security?

The big story at Canadian universities over the last two decades has been the replacement of tenured faculty with contract positions that pay significantly less and offer few benefits. Contract faculty suffer from a lack of security, underemployment, and high levels of workplace stress. “Precarity,” then, represents an apt metaphor capturing how this structure of employment places stress upon faculty. For many part-time faculty, their focus on their students is correlated to their struggle to provide for their families.

While contract faculty have become indispensable to universities- often teaching more than half the students- many earn less than a living wage. Most enjoy fewer benefits than other service personnel at the university, like secretaries that are considered ‘permanent’ employees. Few students or alumni, however, are aware of how the professorate across Canada is being transformed into a casual workers.

Do universities operate on a class system?

  • While tenure-track faculty are given sabbaticals, comprehensive benefits, and a real voice in university affairs, part-time professors often have to meet their students in cafés, print out their own classroom materials, and pay for their own training;
  • Across Ontario, part-time faculty are often the teaching faculty; they not only teach more than half the students but often tackle the high enrollment, lower level courses with a higher proportion of at-risk students;
  • While tenured professors select their courses and develop them over many semesters, many contract faculty receive job offers only at the last minute and are often tasked with putting together ambitious new courses in a few days;
  • Because part-time faculty work contract to contract, they are often the only members of the university community not entitled to basic benefits; access to dental insurance, eye-care, mental health services, or employment security;
  • Because most part-time faculty are underemployed, many need to moon-light off campus to feed their families, but working multiple jobs saps energy and steals time that they would rather invest in their students;
  • Because part-time faculty depend on contract renewal, they hesitate to insist upon their rights in the collective agreement and are incentivized to volunteer hours of unpaid work rather than risk losing their job.

Why should students, alumni, administrators and tenured faculty care about precarity? Improving the security of part-time faculty, including them in university governance, and ensuring them institutional support is key to improving the classroom experience across Canadian universities. Our working conditions are students’ learning conditions.