I’m a university teacher clawing my way back to the middle class

How can it be that experienced, full-time lecturers teaching huge classes at Canadian universities can be on such low salaries that they officially qualify as “poor”?, asks Andrew W. Robinson

April 27, 2016
Rich versus poor
Source: iStock

So it looks like I might possibly just make the absolute lowest rung of the Canadian middle class for the 2015 tax year.

You would think that a full-time university lecturer, with a PhD and decades of experience, would have no problem being middle class. You would be right if I was permanently employed. But I’m not. I string together a full-time job equivalent by taking multiple one-semester assignments. I’ve been doing this for five years now. I earn half of what my permanently employed instructor counterpart would, and a third of what a professor would. I also don’t get a pension plan and have a range of benefits that are laughably poor in comparison with my full-time counterparts. Yet I do exactly the same job and teach the same number of courses.

Over the past three years, my stipend has declined in real value, after cost of living has been factored in. The same cannot be said for the permanent staff. My hard-won increase of 1.5 per cent over three years was swallowed up by a 5 per cent increase in car parking charges the week after contract negotiations ended. In the same period, student tuition has increased by the maximum amount every year for three years, at rates considerably higher than inflation. The reason has been cited by the university as “increased teaching costs”, without any effort made to explain where these increases originate. So far student protest has been subdued. The student union representing undergraduates at my university rolls over and does the university’s bidding at every opportunity. Fortunately, the graduate student union is made of sterner stuff.

So I can teach a maximum possible course load of two courses in each of Fall, Winter and Summer terms. This nets me C$6,750 (£3,670) per four-month course. I make a little extra if I have to set and mark a deferred exam for a student. I get nothing if I set the exam but the student fails to sit it. This happens with depressing regularity. The money is the same, regardless of class size, and my classes average 200 students. And that load of six courses is twice the number taught by the permanent faculty in my department, all of whom earn C$100,000 a year once tenured. So I take a lot of teaching – particularly the big ones for the non-physicists – off their hands, giving them more time for research, which is what gives them career advancement. So it’s win-win for the faculty if I’m exploited by the institution they are a part of. Fewer students and less teaching.

Over the past year, I have taught nearly 1,000 science, engineering and information technology students. Let’s assume that they pay C$1,000 per course on average (overseas students pay a lot more than provincial students). So university income from tuition is a cool million dollars. But the university also gets 50 per cent of its finance from provincial grants. Let’s assume that some of those funds match the tuition income. So the university has C$2 million to educate my students. My salary of C$44,000 constitutes 2.2 per cent of the cost. Now, there are other costs: labs, lab supervisors, graduate teaching assistants, buildings, administrative overhead, support services. Let’s assume a very substantial 70 per cent overhead on that. So 28 per cent of the money generated by my teaching is “profit” –  easily in excess of half a million dollars. And this is the institution that can’t afford to employ me permanently.

That’s where the money for fancy new buildings is coming from: generated from my labour, which works out at about C$30 an hour. Vacations? Nope. The teaching is all-year-round. At the very most, there are two or three days between finalising grades for one course and prepping for the start of the next. I’m forgoing a lot of income this year by taking July and August off: my first break in five years. If I was a permanent employee, there are safeguards built into the collective agreement to prevent that. As a contract instructor? “Screw you: we don’t care” is the standard operating procedure.

And by taking time off in the summer, I’ll probably drop out of the middle class next year. Because I’m in the precariat. And the university and province just don’t care. A big collective shrug is all we get, with some mutterings about “fiscal constraints”. But a system that continually exploits the continuing labour of contract instructors is considered acceptable in governing circles. And the faculty go along with it because they do nicely from the system. We absorb the teaching so they can concentrate on research. It’s hard to feel collegial with faculty that earn three times your salary or more.

Last year, I qualified for sales tax rebates because of low income. Despite working full-time as a university educator, responsible for the education and mentoring of 1,000 students, I qualify as poor by Canadian standards. That shows how much teaching is valued in Ontario universities.

Andrew W. Robinson is a contract instructor in the department of physics at Carleton University, Ottawa. This post was originally published on his blog Precarious Physicist.

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