A union representing more than 4,000 staff is calling for the University of Alberta to end precarious work for educators amid the strategic planning policy that plans to increase enrolment to 60,000 students by 2030.
The Association of Academic Staff University of Alberta (AASUA) launched a fair employment week campaign on Monday to share their concerns with the university’s newly released strategic plan that would enrol an additional 16,000 students by 2030. The current enrolment sits at 44,000 students.
Gordon Swaters, president of AASUA and a professor in the faculty of science at the University of Alberta, said roughly 900 of 2,800 total academic teaching staff do not have consistent full-time employment.
“We’re growing the wrong way,” said Swaters.
“The clear trend over time is that the university is increasingly relying on contract academic staff to teach undergraduate and even graduate students. The pay gap and lack of benefits contract academic staff often face mean they are forced to take on more than a full teaching course load to cobble together a living wage.”
Educators are often on a short-term contract and receive no benefits, according to Swaters. He said as enrolment numbers increase, the university’s policy that perpetuates the precarious work cycle will only worsen.
In the coming months the union is looking for the university to provide more stable and secure employment for educators by extending contract lengths. This includes not only academic staff but temporary librarians and administrative officers who are working under similar conditions.
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Kristine Smitka, vice-president of AASUA, said a part of the ongoing issue with short-term work is that educators need to reapply to the same contract positions once their contract ends. In some cases educators will be without work for months until a new contract is put in place.
“By keeping people in short-term contracts, it’s often a way to keep them out of the benefits plan and the pension plan. When you have a contract that is short, it means that if you want to do any form of restructuring, you never have to pay anyone’s severance because technically they are unemployed at the end of their contract, even if the practice is actually handing out back-to-back contracts frequently,” Smitka said.
Students are suffering due to the ongoing work situation, Smitka said. Rehired or newly hired contract educators will sometimes receive their course assignment two weeks before term begins, leaving them with little time to prepare, including making sure textbooks are ordered ahead of time from the bookstore. This in turn means students are also scrambling to figure out important course information such as syllabus and additional course materials.
Contract instructors have limited mobility within the university. They are unable to supervise thesis students — who they often teach for multiple courses throughout a number of years because they do not have work stability. Smitka said she has heard from students who are often frustrated by the lack of time educators have to provide adequate feedback and one-on-one time.
“A lot of folks are stuck in these vicious cycles. They are permanently in that precarious state and they’re not being afforded that kind of dignity of being converted into ongoing employees who feel that sense of connection to the institution,” said Smitka.