Accountability in the Ontario Ivory Towers

Employment Equity

Universities in Ontario get a block grant from the provincial government to support their basic mission, teaching, research and public service. There is also income from the tuition fees paid by students, money earned from research contracts and donations from alumni and other donors. The problem with the present system is that the Universities are not obliged to account for where the money is spent, and on whether on teaching or research. In fact it is extremely difficult to find out how much money is being spend on teaching by our Universities, because they do not volunteer this information, and do not provide a sufficiently detailed cost breakdown in their annual accounts to make it easy to calculate.

Information on the finances of Wilfred Laurier University, compiled by their faculty association, suggests that 50% of the teaching, in terms of teaching hours is delivered by contract teaching staff. This enormous contribution to teaching accounts for only 3.4% of the total University budget. The contract instructors at the University of Toronto, in CUPE 3902, are currently in negotiation with the University over their contract. They have estimated that they carry out 33% of the teaching there, amounting to only 1% of the total university budget. We can see that Universities are wringing a huge amount of value out of their contract teachers, while paying them very little, and using only a tiny portion of their total budgets.

Naturally, if you mention that the pay and conditions of contract instructors should be improved considerably, the higher administration of any university will, almost as a reflex action, use phases such as, “fiscal constraints”, “financial inflexibility”, and “impossibility in the current financial climate”, as excuses to avoid action. The truth of the matter is that they have a very sweet deal going. They are essentially given a very substantial amount of public money, and the means to take large sums of money from their students, without having to account for their spending in any meaningful way. If the province forced them to pay contract teaching staff an equitable wage, they would have to adjust their current financial models, but it would not be the apocalyptic, “sky falling on our head” situation which is always invoked.

The universities are actually addicted to cheap contract instruction. They can’t get enough of it, and crave more. And of course, like most addicts, they are in denial that there is a problem. The sensible thing would be rehabilitation. This will almost certainly require an outside intervention. This could come from the province, insisting on better accounting practices to find out what their money is actually being spent on, or pressure from students and parents funding students, or from alumni and donors. Nothing would make the universities come up with an alternate financial strategy faster than the threat of loss of money from any or all of those sources.

So let’s examine what the salaries for instructors should really look like, assuming that they are paid at the same rate as the full time professors, for doing the teaching. Full time professors do teaching, research and service work within and outside the University. Most universities make rough breakdowns of the time apportioned to these as, 40% for teaching, 40% for research and 20% for service work. Let’s take an example of a fairly junior professor earning $80,000 per year. In my department, they would teach three courses per year for their 40% teaching allocation, and the three courses would cost the University $32,000. If the University pays a contract instructor like me to teach them, then it costs them only $20,100. You can see why they just love contract instructors, so cheap, so easy to get rid of, no permanent commitment required from them. We haven’t factored in extra costs for the faculty members, a very nice benefit package and pension. So in reality, the cost of the permanent faculty member teaching is even higher. If I was employed as a permanent lecturer, then I would teach one and a half times the faculty teaching requirement, which we could round up to five courses per year. This is what I teach now, earning $34,000 per year. If they paid the same per course as the professor, I would earn $53,300 per year, a much more respectable salary. Simply by applying employment equity on the jobs, as defined in the University’s own faculty agreement, the contract instructors should be paid around 60% more than they are at present. If this calculation was applied at the University of Toronto, the budget for contract instructors would then be 1.6% of the budget. At Wilfred Laurier, it would be 5.6% of the budget. Neither budget increase is so large that other savings could not be made elsewhere. I am assuming here that there are no increases in tuition costs to students. I believe that internal redistribution of the budget should be sufficient to cover this.

A small amount of money diverted to contract instructors would make our lives hugely better, improve morale, and allow us to concentrate on our teaching. Making contracts multi-year would also help and reduce administrative costs too — there would be far fewer contracts to renew every year. Of course I am unable to say exactly where the money would come from, because we don’t actually know where the rest of the University budget is being spent. They haven’t told us. And that is something that needs to change.

Fortunately, that might well happen in Ontario. Bill 8 was passed into law in December 2014. This extends the power of the Ontario Ombudsman to oversee institutions of Higher Education. The Bill has not yet been proclaimed, but as soon as it is, I will certainly be asking the Ombudsman to investigate how large sums of provincial money are being spent, by unaccountable institutions which are exploiting a substantial number of their employees. And that could be very interesting.

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