Lessons in precarity

New research is uncovering what it means to work insecurely in today’s economy—and how a corporate just-in-time mentality at Ontario campuses is transforming education.
May 1, 2018

 Monitor Precarity 1 (May June 2018) Picketers outside George Brown College’s King Street campus in Toronto on November 15, 2017 (Photos by Manzur Malik)

When Ontario college faculty went on an unprecedented strike last fall, the central issues were academic freedom and working conditions, specifically the rise of precarious work. At least 70% of college faculty are contract employees (partial load, sessional or part time), earning significantly less than their full-time colleagues for virtually identical work. Many work limited hours, with no job security, and are required to reapply for contracts every four months.

A key demand from the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) in bargaining with the colleges was a 50:50 split between full- and part-time faculty to ensure more educational stability for students and more employment security for workers. The College Employer Council (CEC) countered that creating 2,840 new full-time jobs would result in the loss of 7,120 contract positions. They didn’t mention these contracts can involve working only a few hours a week—not so much a job as a fishing expedition for bite-sized units of work that need to get done by someone, anyone.

This fragmentation of work, the cobbling together of multiple short contracts to make ends meet, is the logical extension of a just-in-time mentality that is now being applied in Ontario colleges and universities. Workers in this system are without inherent value other than their ability to perform a task in the immediate and to disappear when it’s finished. Though quality of work necessarily suffers from such impermanence, employers are freed of their responsibility to provide professional development and other benefits to their workforce. It is up to the workers themselves to acquire or update the skills necessary for the next required task, and then hopefully be selected to perform it.

Fragmentation of the workforce and workday is one of the defining features of precarity today. Groundbreaking research by PEPSO (Poverty and Employment Precarity in Southern Ontario) indicates that half of workers in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton area are in work considered to be precarious. The nuanced implications of this shift in employment trends have also been addressed by the Law Commission of Ontario, which looks at precarity in the context of “vulnerability,” and how extenuating socioeconomic circumstances (including implicit bias) make one worker more susceptible to living precariously than another.

Recently, precarity has been discussed as part of the consultations on Bill 148, the Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act, which is designed to address the changing nature of work. The legislation fills a lot of gaps in Ontario’s workplace protections. Unfortunately, it does not address the practice of continuously extending fixed-term contracts without any guarantee of being made permanent—a common practice on university and college campuses. As such, even after the striking teachers’ collective agreement is updated to reflect Bill 148, Ontario colleges will be able to continue leaning heavily on contract work, which by some estimates “saves” them as much as $300 million a year in labour costs.


In a new CCPA research paper, No Temporary Solution: Ontario’s Shifting College and University Workforce, Robin Shaban and I record a shift from permanent to temporary work, more unpaid work, and workers performing multiple jobs in Ontario’s post-secondary institutions, though the shift is uneven and not experienced by everyone. We also note that these indicators of precarity are frequently stacked: if a worker is precariously employed, they are more likely to work unpaid overtime or to have multiple jobs.

Specifically, Robin and I identify a proportionate rise in work categories that are more precarious by design (research and teaching assistants) alongside a decline in those that traditionally have been less precarious (librarians). There has also been an increase in precarious work within certain job categories, resulting in an increase in the proportion of temporary workers in student services and plant operations, administration and college academic staff. We further identify a slight yet steady decline in the proportion of full-time university instructors and college academic staff.

To put faces to these numbers, we gathered testimony from workers on more than a dozen campuses who live with the personal and professional fallout from this work model. Faculty are given little notice of work or course cancellations, a few of them said. Timelines shift annually, “because our administration does not consider the preparation of the timetable and the posting of work a priority,” according to one Brescia College employee. Further, instructors frequently must apply each year to teach their courses, with no consideration for seniority.

Where once contract faculty would have uniformly been paid by the hour, today some colleges pay per student, which can result in extremely low levels of compensation. Collegiality and relationship development has been affected by these shifts, particularly for those contracted to do online work who now have little connection to the campus and must develop their coursework on their own time, according to a Georgian College worker.

“Some contract faculty have used the food bank, got second jobs cleaning houses. Quit after two weeks,” said another employee from Fleming College. “Lack of access to faculty after class as they go to a second job or are not provided with an office. Accept lesser contracts as they are precarious. Accept multiple contracts. Full-time work is being broken down into contracts.”

The second issue prioritized by college faculty during the strike was academic freedom, or as their chief negotiator J.P. Hornick put it, “who should make decisions in a classroom, the professor or the administrator.” Monitor Precarity 2 (May June 2018)

The union argued that choices about course content, textbooks and materials for in-class use, as well as the determination of whether assignments had been completed and who should pass or fail, must remain the purview of the people doing the teaching. This was a no-cost demand but still a sticking point for management, which preferred the term “academic control” (theirs) to “academic freedom” (the faculty’s). The distinction underscores how power dynamics and professional recognition in the workplace fed into the work stoppage last year.

Academic freedom is predicated on faculty having specialized knowledge in their field, awareness of relevant content or how context may have changed, and the ability to set assignments and allocate grades based on professional expertise. It is rooted in a more complex, nuanced, iterative approach to education that sees the profession as much more than a collection of detached inputs and outputs, but as a specialized calling that should be appropriately compensated.

In the precarity model, knowledge production, discussion and dissemination are disentangled by management into a series of simpler tasks for faculty to perform, much like how a computer might disaggregate data to complete a function. These teaching tasks are cheaper to the college or university than full-time instructors, and carried out mainly to satisfy the expectations of paying consumer-students.

This model has direct implications for quality of education. For example, many of the workers surveyed for our report spoke of the inability of students to access contract faculty outside of regular scheduled classroom hours. Others suggested it was more difficult for precariously employed faculty to push back against management’s demands to change (“inflate”) grades. Furthermore, a number of survey respondents said quality of education has no relevance in the new management style, at least in part because decisions were being made by those with little or no background in the subject being taught.

When employers redefine jobs as a series of fragmented or potentially unconnected tasks whose permanence is not guaranteed, it makes work itself, as well as the lives of workers, more precarious. One respondent from Georgian College described how faculty work had been shifted to technicians (for half the pay), but the faculty themselves were so short of money they were scooping up the technical roles:

I could give you countless stories of our part-time faculty who live with serious stress not knowing if they have work [from] semester to semester. Some are individuals who have spent in excess of $80,000 to earn their credentials only to be part-time faculty for 10 years and more. Often they must work at several institutions and their vehicles become their offices. Of course the quality of education suffers when the faculty are stressed and do not feel supported or valued or a real part of the team. They are also unable to fully develop themselves as faculty through their own professional development and research because they cannot afford the time.


Of course, universities and colleges are not just places of work—they are places of learning, too. But as we know, teaching/working conditions and learning conditions are inextricably linked. Does this more precarious, fragmented work model have implications for student learning inside and outside the classroom?

There is significant research suggesting that when faculty are less available to students, or when academic freedom is threatened, or when faculty do not have access to formal or informal departmental support, the quality of their work, and of the education students receive, suffers. A Durham College employee who responded to our survey pointed out how difficult it is to ensure consistent educational quality when “the faculty who are precariously employed are exhausted and usually are running [back and forth between] at least two other college campuses to teach in order to earn a living wage.”

I’m not the first to point out the irony in precariously employed faculty teaching students who will graduate, in debt, to find mainly precarious forms of employment in today’s “job-churn” reality (Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s term). Writing in the Globe and Mail earlier this year, McGill University Principal and Vice-Chancellor Suzanne Fortier argued that higher education should in fact reflect and accommodate this precarious work model: “a learning environment that responds to the needs and constraints of workers,” was how she put it.

Fortier’s description of this learning model is eerily similar to how business leaders are spinning the future of work—not so much precarious as flexible and self-directed, even liberating:

Ultimately, it will be individuals who need to take control of their own educations in order to shape their career paths and discover new horizons of learning. We are already seeing this "take charge" mindset among students on campuses across Canada. They are involved in research and innovation activities, thus not only feeding their own insatiable curiosity, but developing skills and leadership capacity. They are choosing to take a course or two online in order to free up their schedules so that they can participate in an experiential or action-based learning opportunity, thus seeing how they can apply their knowledge and skills in the workplace.

It’s a modular (Fortier’s word) do-it-yourself vision of education, where a degree is reconfigured as a series of student-driven learning and skill acquisition opportunities to satisfy individual “curiosity,” but also to respond to rapidly changing career path requirements or—let’s be honest—employer demands. The job market is unpredictable, in other words. Education needs to be freed from its traditional confines to keep up and to allow students to unleash their inner CEO.

In effect, this view of education is a direct application or reflection of how precarity has reconfigured work, whatever the sector, into a series of modular tasks. Workers are expected to sink or swim depending on their ability to adapt and exhibit a “take charge” mindset (also known as can-do-ism) that doesn’t need the cushion of steady, predictable hours, benefits or adequate compensation—the things that allow for a decent standard of living and work-life balance.

The cure for precarity is, apparently, to create more precarity. To be grateful for it. To hug it tighter. Last fall, Ontario college teachers fought to change this script, not just for education workers but potentially for everyone. The arbitration award underscored many of the principles OPSEU members were striking for, and resulted in a provincewide task force to address precarious work, student success and mental health. The provincial government has been put on notice that “job churn” should be considered less an inevitability than a deliberate decision to undermine workplace and community stability and sustainability.

Erika Shaker is Director of Education and Outreach at the CCPA.