Insecure academic contracts ‘major source of stress’

Canadian study finds that short-term contracts are ‘discouraging and demoralising’

September 3, 2018
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The majority of sessional academic staff in Canada say that job precarity is a major source of stress, with a significant minority adding that it has had a detrimental impact on their mental health, according to a study.

A survey of 2,606 contract scholars across Canada found that 69 per cent said that the contingent nature of their work was a considerable source of stress, and 52 per cent said that it affected their ability to make long-term plans such as whether to have children or buy a house.

More than a third of respondents (37 per cent) added that their mental health has been negatively affected by their employment conditions, according to the study, “Out of the shadows: Experiences of contract academic staff”, from the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT).

All survey participants were employed to teach at a Canadian higher education institution on a temporary contract in the 2016-17 academic year. Seven in 10 respondents said that they were employed on a course-by-course basis, and 59 per cent said that they had been teaching on a temporary contract for more than five years. Nevertheless, most staff (53 per cent) wanted a tenure track or full-time permanent position.

The report says that university administrators justify the use of short-term contracts by claiming that they provide academics an “attractive flexibility”, but in reality they are “discouraging and demoralising” to staff.

David Robinson, executive director of the CAUT, said that the results show that the “great majority of contract faculty are not moonlighters looking to pick up some extra income, but are highly educated and skilled professionals who rely upon their teaching contracts as their main source of income”.

He added that the growth of contract faculty and the increasing precariousness of academic work was a “trend that undermines the traditional tenure process, and threatens…academic freedom”.

Although the report focused on Canada, Mr Robinson said that he would expect to find similar results in other countries because the increase in the casualisation of higher education employment was “a broader trend that associations and unions like ours are confronting around the globe”.

“Every university and college administration should read these results with alarm as they reveal how their employment practices are affecting the well-being of a significant share of the academic workforce,” he said.

“The levels of mental health concerns reported are simply not sustainable. We are creating unhealthy workplaces.”

Sarika Bose, sessional lecturer in the English department at the University of British Columbia and chair of the contract faculty committee at the institution’s faculty association, said that the contingent nature of her employment “creates the automatic reaction that I must be a lesser academic and a lesser human being”.

“My contract must be renewed yearly, and every few years there is some kind of crisis that attempts to erase whatever modicum of job security is available in our collective agreement,” she said.

“The resulting stress and anxiety cannot be overstated. Deep depression affects many of us, as our good and hard work continues to remain unacknowledged.”

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Reader's comments (1)

I had a prestigious fellowship that allowed me to undertake research in a world class ibstitute in Japan (not to name it). A number of postdocs including myself were struggling in terms of mental health due to the constant pressure and the culture of excellence exerced in this institute (any publications below Science or Nature standard was not encouraged). After I had my second child it was almost impossible to excel in academia while being a good father which implies spending a healthy dose of time with my little ones. Even I secured another highly selectif and prestigious fellowship over there I decided to decline ut and come back to Australia. Even with over 12 publications including 8 as a leading author and 2 prestigious fellowships secured, I still couldn't secure something permanent in Academia. That's why (among other reasons related to how unhealthy and unsustainable academia has become), I decided to quit academia and focus on my kids. I am now casually tutoring at university. It is a shame that academia is loosing talented people.