Editorial Matters: The reality of precarious academic work around the world

On February 25, 2015, many adjunct faculty members in the United States walked out of their classrooms to protest their working conditions. Just days later, contract faculty at York University were out on strike. Across North America, reporters and media outlets began to wake up to a sorry reality: for thousands of professors across North America, academia no longer means a stable income or a good job.

To those of us who pay attention to higher education, this is not a surprise. Precarious academic employment has been on the rise for decades. The reasons are simple enough. The gradual erosion of public funding for higher education has forced universities to seek cheaper teaching models. Administrators, seized by an increasingly corporate focus, have moved towards more “flexible” labour models. Unfortunately, cheaper and more flexible faculty come at the expense of access to benefits, job security, fair pay, and academic freedom.

It’s a grim situation for the talented faculty members trapped in precarious work. Andrew Robinson’s article in this issue is a powerful example of the kind of frustration – and the on-campus conflicts – bred by the vagaries of contract employment. But for all the gloom, there are hopeful signs everywhere.

I’m encouraged by the activists working to bring attention to contract faculty issues. National Adjunct Walkout Day is the most visible recent example, but there are also promising initiatives closer to home. The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) is spreading the word through its Fair Employment Week. Here in Ontario, the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA) – the publisher of this magazine – recently launched the “We Teach Ontario” campaign to highlight the important contributions made by contract faculty in the face of difficult working conditions.

The Spring/Summer issue of Academic Matters also features some heartening international stories of people and organizations pushing back against precarious academic work. From the UK, Jonathan White of the University and College Union (UCU) writes about the rise of zero-hours contracts in British universities, where individuals are given a position without any guarantee of actual paid work. He traces the work of the UCU to combat this trend, and highlights the success they’ve had putting this issue on the public agenda.

Similarly, Jeannie Rea describes the casualization of academic work in Australia, and how the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) has been active in the fight to keep up employment standards in the academy. These articles make it clear that the rise of precarious academic work is a global phenomena. It also hints at the immense benefit of sharing stories, tactics, and solidarity across borders can help ensure that academic jobs remain good jobs.

On the subject of solidarity and defiance, this issue also features a new history of faculty unions in Ontario by Craig Heron. This article was originally given as a lecture at OCUFA’s Faculty Associations in the 21st Century conference, held in the fall of 2014. Natalie Coulter and Lorna Erwin provide an overview of the social justice work done by the York University Faculty Association (YUFA) in Toronto’s Jane and Finch neighbourhood. This type of social commitment is a template for how faculty associations can engage with issues in the broader community, such as the rise of precarious work in all sectors of the economy.

This issue also contains a call for professors and academic librarians everywhere to engage with the wider world of politics. Author Robin Vose explains that political engagement is a core component of academic commitment, and a responsibility we cannot shirk in a federal election year. Altogether, this issue of Academic Matters presents a stark view of some of the serious issues facing higher education. But it also presents ideas for facing up to these challenges, from personal political commitment to deeper engagement in faculty associations to engaging our associations with social and political issues beyond our institutions.

As always, we want to know what you think about Academic Matters. Send me an email at editor@academicmatters.ca with your comments, criticisms, and thoughts. You can also find all of our issues online at Academicmatters.ca, where you can leave your comments and join the discussion directly. As a nice bonus, the website, academicmatters.ca also features web exclusive content, blog posts, and other online goodies.

Thanks for reading, and we’ll see you again in the fall.