The Sessional Instructor reality

Sessionals are responsible for the delivery of over 20% of undergraduate courses and a significant number of graduate courses. Most sessionals already have their PhD and are trying to find full time employment in academia. Some sessionals have been teaching in a sessional position for more than 10 years at SFU. We must address two Sessional problems while ensuring that grad students have access to these positions as well.

Seniority rights

The only seniority right sessional instructors currently have is called right of first refusal (also known as ROFR) [SFU and TSSU, 2004; article XIV, section E, p.31]. ROFR gives a sessional the right of first refusal to a course for the next three times a course is taught if they meet these two criteria.

  1. Have worked as a sessional instructor for 3 consecutive semesters or 5 different semesters in the last 3 years.
  2. Have taught the identical course 3 times in the last 9 semesters as a sessional instructor.

After a sessional has earned their ROFR and received three subsequent offers, they lose it completely and have to earn it again. Regardless of the quality of their teaching, sessionals effectively have no job security. This creates many difficulties for these members. There is the human impact of going from semester to semester without knowing when your next appointment will be. Worse is the sessional instructor experience of meeting a new chair in a department who wants to bring in new instructors, and who shows the senior teachers the door after years of servitude. This situation affects academic freedom and intellectual property because sessionals have little to no protection to control the development of new instructional material. One bad review and they could be out of a job.

To remedy this problem and recognize the contributions of sessionals to the teaching environment, TSSU has proposed that sessionals be able to earn seniority and that experienced instructors be first in line to be hired. Having job security is the first step for sessionals to be able to fully participate in the teaching environment at SFU. With knowledge they can’t be arbitrarily fired (by just never being rehired), Sessionals can’t exercise academic freedom and can’t ask for better working conditions.

TSSU also recognizes that, in some programs, teaching a course as a sessional can be a part of a PhD student’s training. To ensure that this access is maintained, TSSU has proposed that departments be able to designate a small percentage of their sessional postings outside of the seniority system.

It should be noted that TSSU does not want to see an overall shift of PhD students from being TAs to being sessionals. A PhD student TAing a 5.17 BU appointment actually makes more than a sessional teaching a 3 credit course, so if the University succeeds in shifting sessional work to PhD students, this will only lengthen completion times and increase PhD student debt. This shift would result in PhD students doing more work for less money, and having less time for research.

Only the University’s bottom line is improved by pushing PhD students into sessional jobs. For every PhD student who gets shifted to sessional work, the University can hire an undergraduate or external TA. This saves the University a significant amount of money because not only do they pay external and undergrad TAs less, but also they no longer have to pay the PhD student the scholarship amount they would get if they were a TA.

Building a ladder to permanent work in the faculty

While sessionals have become a semi-permanent work situation as the University works to reduce costs, sessionals also need a way to be able to move up to positions within the faculty association. TSSU has proposed that a bridge be created between sessional positions and lecturer positions. This would mean that long-term sessionals, whose teaching proficiency SFU has recognized by continually rehiring them, have the opportunity to move into permanent positions.

The Business of Sessionals

The rising use of sessionals, also referred to as Adjunct Faculty, is a trend that is occurring across North America. The reason for this trend is a strong financial incentive for Universities to exploit the labour of these workers. At SFU, a sessional earns about $6000 per course and has minimal benefits: if the sessional taught two courses per term, all three terms per year, it would add up to $36,000/year, but that situation is never a given. This is especially concerning in Vancouver, where the cost of living is among the highest of any city in North America. A full professor at SFU, on the other hand, earns at least $100,000 / year, has substantial pension and benefits that add at least 20% to the cost of the salary, and yet typically teaches only two-three courses per year. Thus, a sessional can be hired to teach at least 8 courses for the same price as it costs for a professor to teach only one course. With a larger and larger portion of the University budget coming from tuition fees, the profit incentive for trading professors in for sessionals is simply too great for departments to resist.

The shift to sessionals has had wide ranging impacts well beyond the workers who are being exploited. Fundamental to the University system is the earned right of tenure. Tenure is essential for academic freedom because it prevents dissent from being silenced by termination. In addition, the governance structures of Universities are driven by committees lead by Faculty members: without Faculty, there are no committees, and the University is instead run by professional bureaucrats. For undergraduate students, the loss of tenured professors results in significant problems applying for scholarships,which  typically require reference letters be written by tenure-track professors. The move to sessional labour provides a clear and present danger to the future of the University system.

TSSU has spent considerable time mining the limited data we received from the University. The information we have extracted paints a clear picture of what’s happening with sessionals on campus. First, we see quite clearly that SFU has increased the number of students in courses taught by sessionals. This is problematic on two fronts: it means sessionals have more work for the same money, and, of course, departments are not obliged to provide TAs to assist sessionals with tutorials. Faculty members teaching the same course have automatic triggers for partial marking or full teaching assistance.  Thus departments are “double-dipping” on savings by using sessionals and by avoiding the teaching support provisions of the Faculty agreement.

The average number of students in a course taught by sessionals has increased from ~40 in 2005 to ~50 now. This change corresponds to the timeframe when budgets were squeezed due to the financial crisis.

Another key consequence of the increasing class size for sessionals is that SFU has a greater “gross margin” for each course taught. By looking at the pay rate of sessionals, the number of courses taught, the contact hours per course, and the tuition fees paid by students TSSU was able to determine the amount of gross margin SFU makes for every course taught by a sessional. This margin has increased significantly over the past 7 years and is the quantitative basis for the increased use of sessionals.

The average gross margin per course is the difference between the revenue generated by the course and the direct marginal costs of putting on the course (i.e. paying the sessional).

The average gross margin per course is the difference between the revenue generated by the course and the direct marginal costs of putting on the course (i.e. paying the sessional)

When it comes to sessionals, the University is no longer thinking like a benevolent institution interested in higher education. Instead SFU acts the same a business would, attempting to optimize margins by changing how they produce their goods. As of 2011, over 22% of SFU’s teaching (calculated by FTE) has been done by sessionals. This number represents a significant and hidden population at the University. Without change, SFU faces the grim reality faced by many US Universities where over 75% of the FTE teaching is done by sessional labour. For all these reasons, TSSU must win a fair collective agreement for sessionals.

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