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The Casualization of Academic Labour at York University

Lykke de la Cour, CUPE 3903, Unit 2

In the recent CUPE strike, York University’s over-reliance on contractualized academic labour erupted as a central and critical question in discussions around the union’s job security proposals. Interestingly, last fall, at the outset of the strike, most Unit 2 members of CUPE 3903 were largely unaware of the extent to which contract faculty were utilized to fulfill the university’s teaching mission, particularly with respect to undergraduate instruction. Our concerns lay more with working conditions, specific terms of employment, and the precariousness of contractual work. However, one of the benefits that the strike afforded was time to research more fully the circumstances of contractualized academic staff at the university.

What emerged from these studies was the realization that York University is leading the vanguard, at least among public universities in Ontario, towards an academic labour force composed largely of contingent instructors. This is what is referred to as the “casualization” of the academic labour market, i.e. where undergraduate teaching (and even in some cases, graduate teaching) is increasingly delegated to a cadre of precariously employed contract faculty, mainly because they constitute a cheap and a flexible pool of academic labour for universities and colleges.

Scholarship on the casualization of academic labour links this trend to declines in government spending on education and the rise in the corporatization of North American universities, a phenomenon whereby post-secondary institutions are increasingly managed by, modeled on, and oriented towards corporate interests and practices. Over the past three decades, American universities have been at the forefront of this transformation. In How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation, Marc Bousquet demonstrates that tenure and tenure-track faculty, in the United States, now barely constitute 30% of those teaching at universities, and membership in the American Association of University Professors has declined from 90,000 in 1973, to a mere 43,000 today, despite unprecedented expansions in undergraduate and graduate student enrolments. In Reclaiming the Ivory Tower, Joe Berry argues that the “casualization of the faculty workforce … represents one of the few recent instances in the United States economy … where an entire occupation has been converted from permanent career status to temporary, often part-time, status in the space of a single generation of workers.”

Similar patterns have transformed the Canadian academic landscape, although research suggests to a slightly lesser degree than south of the border due to stronger trends, in Canada, towards academic unionization, legislative support for collective bargaining processes, and the efforts of professional academic organizations, such as CAUT. Nevertheless, during the CUPE 3903 strike, it became increasingly apparent that while York University has historically relied on a contractual teaching complement, it now stands poised to head even further towards an American model whereby undergraduate teaching rests largely on the work of contingent academic labour.

Contract faculty currently make up 55% of the teaching complement at York University. Published figures in the York Fact Book 2007/8 indicate that the university employs 1,612 contract faculty and 1,520 full-time faculty. However, this latter figure is somewhat misleading as it also includes Contractually Limited Appointments (CLAs), faculty who hold Special Renewable Contracts (SRCs), and “Authorized True Visitors.” If these three categories (which total around 108 faculty members ) are subtracted from the full-time numbers, it means that the tenured and probationary tenure-track faculty at York number 1,412, thus constituting only 45% of the teaching complement at the university.

The noticeable surge in contract teaching began at York around 2003. As of 2007/8, contract faculty outnumbered tenured faculty at the university by 200, and this figure is anticipated to rise. Despite significant growth in both undergraduate and graduate student enrolments, York’s tenured/tenure-track faculty complement increased by only 9%, over the past three years, while the number of Unit 2 members in CUPE 3903 rose by 74%. A preliminary survey of the Unit 2 membership also shows that quite a few contract faculty are engaged in graduate teaching, either directing graduate courses (paid a regular C.D. rate) or sitting as faculty members on graduate committees (unpaid labour). Given the projected growth in graduate enrolment, combined with scheduled retirements of tenured faculty, Unit 2 members may well find themselves being utilized not only for undergraduate instruction, but also graduate teaching and supervision at the university.

Another indicator of the trend towards casualization of academic labour at York is student/full-time faculty ratios. According to data produced by Statistics Canada on FTE student/full-time faculty ratios, York University ranked one of the poorest scores, with a student-faculty ratio of 34.8 for 2005-6. This standing was only surpassed by institutions such as Nippising University (37.5), Collége Dominicain de Philosophie et de Théologie (40.8), Télé-Université (43.6), the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (50.4), and Athebasca University (55.5). FTE student/faculty ratios for most other large Ontario universities ranged between 19.6 and 25.9. What these figures intimate is an over-reliance at York University on contractualized academic labour to meet teaching demands.

    Casualization and Equity Issues

What has not been drawn out so fully in discussions on the casualization of academic labour is how the issue intersects with equity concerns. Among CUPE 3903 contract faculty there is a significant over-representation of women and people with disabilities, and a somewhat more moderate over-representation of visible minorities. Michael Ornstein’s 2005 report, “Graduate Students, Contract Faculty Members, and Equity at York University,” indicates that nearly 60% of contract faculty are women, a quarter are Aboriginal or members of racialized groups, and 15% are persons with disabilities.

How does this compare with tenured faculty at York? A 2003 report on equity to Senate, by Academic VP Sheila Embleton, noted that women constituted 41% of the full-time faculty complement at the university. More recent statistics produced by the Office of the AVP show that among tenure stream appointments, over the past eight years, 47% have been women, 21% have been individuals who identify as visible minorities or Aborginal, and 1.3% have been persons with disabilities.

These figures indicate that there is an over-concentration of equity groups, particularly women and individuals with disabilities, within CUPE Unit 2 contract faculty. This then begs the question: is being contractually employed an indicator of merit, as sometimes implied by university administrators and some YUFA members, or rather is it a gauge of structural disadvantage and systemic discrimination within academic employment? The concern of CUPE 3903 members, across all units, is that the trend towards the corporatization of the university, and a greater reliance on contingent academic labour, means that not only will there be fewer and fewer individuals hired into tenured-stream positions, but also that equity issues will become even further exacerbated. An analysis of what has been happening with York’s conversion appointments, over the past five years, illustrates that CUPE’s concerns are not unfounded.

Up to 2002, conversion appointments were distributed fairly equally between men and women. However, from 2002 to 2008, the number of women who received conversion appointments plummeted to 34%. Several factors appear to have caused this imbalance:
First, starting in 2005, a growing number of conversion appointments have been to the science and professional programs. Of the 20 conversion appointments made over the past three years, nearly one-third have been to Health Sciences, Natural Science, Science and Engineering, and Public Policy and Administration. All except one of these appointments were men. Secondly, since the early 2000s, appointments of women have been concentrated to fair degree in the School of Women’s Studies. Thirdly, conversion appointments to large interdisciplinary departments in Arts, such as the Division of Humanities, the Division of Social Science, and Atkinson SAL/SSS, have declined over time. For example, of the nine conversion appointments received by the Division of Social Science, 78% were in the first ten years of the program, while the department has only received two (22%) in the last ten years. Similarly, 60% of the total number of conversions to Humanities and 64% of the total to Atkinson SAL/SSS occurred between 1988 and 1998, and then tapered off.

These factors suggest that conversion appointments have shifted from some Arts programs and are increasingly being used strategically to target faculty growth in specific programmatic areas in the university, particularly the sciences and professional studies. This trend did not, and does not bode well for women, or Unit 2 members in general, given the higher percentages of CUPE contract faculty and graduate students in arts-based departments and programs.

Data on the CUPE 3903 Unit 2 membership also suggests that gender will become even more pronounced and critical to the issue of casualized academic labour at the university in the very near future. York administration’s figures show that the number of women who have been in the conversion pool less than 5 years (i.e. those who entered after 2003) has more than doubled. From 2004 to 2008, ten men and twenty-four women have entered the conversion pool. Given that this increase is coinciding with the general decline in tenure faculty appointments, as well as declines in the numbers of women who are obtaining conversion appointments, it is essential that dynamics associated with gender and women’s labour in the academic setting be identified and targeted much more specifically, both with respect to conversions and to other job security mechanisms, such as renewable teaching contracts. Additionally, equity surveys and analyses need to be broadened to examine other recognized categories of social and economic disadvantage, such as class, sexual orientation, single motherhood, and age.


At the outset of the CUPE 3903 strike, few contract faculty at York realized the extent to which their academic labour fulfilled the overall teaching needs of the university. Yet, by the last five days of the strike, the issue of precarious, casualized academic labour stood out front and centre in the provincial legislature in the debates surrounding the back-to-work legislation. Much of this discussion focussed on the question of government funding to post-secondary institutions, connecting declines in tenure positions to reduced government spending on universities in the province.

However, overlooked in these debates, is the question why York University, more than other public universities, in the province, large or small, has come to spearhead the drive towards a greater use of contingent academic labour. What is also fundamentally disconcerting with this change is that a considerable portion of the growth in contract faculty at York is occurring in what is known as CUPE-exempt positions, contractualized teaching appointments that are not organized under the CUPE 3903 collective agreement. Many of these positions are linked to professional and applied programs where practical skills and employment in community settings are listed as required experience for teaching appointments. In other words, the labour pool for these postitions is largely non-academic. Currently, of the 1,612 contract faculty at the university, only 900 are members of CUPE 3903. Those faculty who remain outside the bargaining unit generally enjoy the wages, but none of the benefits or seniority provisions of the CUPE collective agreement.

In one of his speeches to the provincial legislature, during the last days of January when the labour disruption at York was discussed, NDP leader Howard Hampton described the profound transformations occurring with casualized academic labour as a form of Walmart-ization within the university sector. As Hampton put it:

What it amounts to is this: It is really about the degradation of the work … much of this work, 20 years ago, would have been done by full university professors. They would have been paid well, they'd have a pension plan and they'd have some job security and they'd have other things which attach to the job. But as those professors retire, the work is now being put upon contract workers-these workers.
Do they have a pension? No. Do they have job security? No. Do they have much of a benefit package? No. Do they have much in terms of wages? No. You know what this almost sounds like? It almost sounds like the McGuinty Liberals want to introduce Wal-Mart to Ontario's university system: have them work for less, have them work with no job security, have them work without pensions, have them
work without benefits, and then say to the world, "We have a wonderful university system."

While it is always popular to blame problems on government, the situation at York today suggests that the issues confronting the university are far more complex and extend beyond the question of funding to post-secondary institutions. This is a question that will require much more probing by all those concerned with the transformations occurring at the university and the overall quality of post-secondary education in North America.
Indhu Rajagopal. Hidden Academics: Contract Faculty in Canadian Universities. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002; Benjamin Johnson, Patrick Kavanagh, and Kevin Mattson, eds. Steal This University: The Rise of the Corporate University and the Academic Labor Movement. New York: Routledge, 2003; James L. Turk, ed. Universities at Risk: How Politics, Special Interests and Corporatization Threaten Academic Integrity. Toronto: James Lorimer and Company Ltd., 2008; Marc Bousquet. How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation. New York: NY University Press, 2008.
Doug Lorimer, “Tenured Faculty or Endangered Species,” CAUT/ACPPU Bulletin Online, Vol. 55, No. 10 (2008): 3-4.
Joe Berry Reclaiming the Ivory Tower: Organizing Adjuncts to Change Higher Education. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2005, p. 4.
Ibid., pp. 4-5.
York University. Fact Book: 2007-8. Year=2007%20-%202008. The number of contract faculty listed includes both CUPE 3903 Unit 2 members and CUPE-exempt contract faculty.
For numbers on CLAs, SRCs, and True Visitors see: Sheila Embelton, Vice-President Academic, York University. Academic Priorities 2008-2009.October 1, 2008.
It is unclear what proportion of this complement are retired tenured faculty still teaching under the YUFA collective agreement.
See York University. Fact Book: 2005-6 . Year=2005%20-%202008.
The degree to which contract faculty at York University engage in graduate teaching needs to be more fully studied. Through a cursory preliminary survey of members active in the CUPE 3903 Unit 2 caucus, it appears that quite a few contract faculty teach graduate courses and participate as advisors on dissertation committees both internally, at York, and externally at other universities.
Statistics Canada. Centre for Education Statistics. “University Student-Full-time Faculty Rations by Institution, 2005-6,” University and College Academic Staff Survey (UCASS). Postsecondary Student Information.
Michael Ornstein. Institute for Social Research, York University. Graduate Students, Contract Faculty Members, and Equity at York University: A Report to the CUPE 3903-York University Administration Joint Committee on Employment Equity. October 2005, pp. 6-7.
Shelia Embleton, Vice-President Academic, York University. Report to Senate on Appointments and Complement Planning, 2003.
Shelia Embleton, Vice-President Academic, York University. Academic Resource Planning, October 2008.
These calculations are based on a list distributed to CUPE 3903 by York administration, “CUPE 3903 Conversion Appointments, 1998-2008.”
Figures are drawn from a list of Affirmative Action Pool members distributed to CUPE 3903 by York administration, December 2008.
On the third day of debate, George Smitherman defended the Liberal party’s spending on universities by noting that over the last five or six years, funding for York University had increased by 52%. See: Legislative Assembly of Ontario, Debates (Hansard), January 27, 2009. web/house-proceedings/ Date=2009-01-27.
Legislative Assembly of Ontario, Debates (Hansard), January 26, 2009. web/house-proceedings/ Date=2009-01-26..