The plight of sessional lecturers is a lesser issue, compared with the probable plight of all lecturers and the universities where they work. Online degrees at a fraction of the cost of on campus degrees pose real competition. So far online has not eaten into the on campus experience, but it will as soon as these course are seen as providing an official credential. And that will begin to happen soon – or another of my predictions will be proved wrong.
You can stop here and read Kevin Carey’s New York Times article of March 5, 2015, “Here’s What Will Truly Change Higher Education: Online Degrees That are Seen as Official.”
The potential of online
Higher education has become ridiculously expensive with the combination of fees, away from home living costs and lost income from not working. The on campus experience has features not available from online learning, but there are other ways of gaining this experience. Many students today are on campus and on their cell phones and pads anyway, interacting with other people and web material electronically rather than face to face. Universities, in order to compete for students, have turned the on campus experience into a country club-type ambiance with athletic facilities, social clubs, sports medicine clinics, restaurants, shops and services not directly related to traditional delivery of disciplinary learning.
Those who want this full monty educational experience will have to pay for it, and the Ivy League and Oxbridge experience will be less affected. Those more concerned with an education in a narrower sense will now be able to afford it with a credential which employers recognize. I know, the narrower experience is not what education is all about, but there are now more efficient ways to get a sound education in a cost efficient manner, plus the time and means to buy the other aspects (the country club trimmings) as well. At least, that is what Kevin Carey argues and it seems to make sense.
The tsunami-like technological changes which have hit the banking, movie, music, television, telecommunications, publishing (books, newspapers and less so magazines), retail and manufacturing industries is coming to education. Many instructors in schools and colleges are already embracing the technology in their teaching in traditional institutions. Classroom lectures are often available as power-point presentations, sometimes online before the live lecture. A student has the option of attending the live lecture but need not, and online discussion groups may also exist.
Off-campus learning started way back with correspondence courses, and in the 1960s with televised courses, the Open University in the UK, and today online courses. (Carleton University was one of the early providers of televised courses with tapes available for student use, but it never experimented with the technology to develop other options. I once attended a lecture where the course was given on a screen in a lecture room, darkened like a movie theatre. A student next to me watched for a few minutes, and unimpressed said she was going to the do her laundry. I have no idea whether she watched the tape later, but it forever reminded me to try to be interesting when lecturing, or as L.A.G.Strong, a literary critic wrote “Think of the reader not yourself. Make everything interesting. Write about everything – even linoleum.”)
This raises the current dispute involving part time or sessional lecturers who argue that their work load has increased without a commensurate increase in remuneration. If their contractual terms have been broken, or if they want to strike for better terms, the procedures are available to do so. Here I want to take note of the market for university instruction.
Teaching as a type of outsourcing
Outsourcing abroad and temporary foreign workers are two sides of the same coin. If the price is right, work will be sent from Canada a high wage country to a low wage country. If the work has to be performed in Canada, then foreign workers are brought to Canada. The latter occurs for agricultural workers especially at harvest time, for home helpers and in areas like Northern Alberta where there is or has been a resource boom. All use some temporary or part time workers. A form of this takes place in universities.
Opportunities occur for part-time workers in higher education where two types of teaching labour are employed. Tenure track employees receive detailed screening and are evaluated in their first years of employment before being granted tenure, a contract which provides a high degree of income security. Some may not receive tenure. A second type of worker are part-timers, sessional lecturers hired to teach a particular course or series of courses at a much lower salary. These are not expected to undertake administrative chores or research, and so they perform a different type of job.
Since at least the 1960s, classes in Canadian universities, especially at the first year level in the arts and social sciences, have been taught by sessional lecturers. Over time, their use has increased as student enrollment has risen in total and as a proportion of the 18 to 24 age group.
The economics of this process is straightforward. More students require more resources, teaching and other. This is paid for either by raising student fees or through taxation. There is no free ride and “water bed” economics applies – change in one area inevitably causes changes elsewhere. When a change occurs in one part of the educational market, say more students, increased resources are required to supply the demand. Full time faculty is the desired path but teaching can be provided at a lower cost with sessionals. The quality may not be the same but as Quebec students have shown, many are not prepared to pay higher fees. The quality of their education will suffer but this seems to be acceptable, at least at the moment.
Over time the number and share of courses given by part-time teachers has risen. What are the consequences? For the university, teaching cost increases are reduced. Flexibility is maintained by the nature of the sessional contract. Quality control of teaching can be managed for sessionals who are evaluated after each course by the students. Poor ratings result in teachers not being rehired. It is far more difficult to dismiss a tenured employee even with poor student course evaluations.
There are issues which arise with the use of student evaluations with students and their parents lobbying and expecting to get high grades, and faculty catering to these expectations. Research on this topic shows that there has been grade inflation not only in schools but in universities. Both full and part time university teachers are subject to these pressures. With online courses, the pressure for grade inflation should be reduced. Firms will want to show that the credentials they issue are seen as valuable and informative to employers.
At the high school level in Ontario, the proportion of graduates who are Ontario scholars has steadily increased since the late 1960s when province wide exams were abolished and now each school grades its own Grade 12 students. Those with an 80% graduating average has risen from 20% in the 1960s to 60% today. (I have discussed this in a Aug. 12, 2014 posting.) The Ontario government is reluctant to provide the time series data for this conclusion, but teachers and former students will confirm this.
Another aspect of the teaching market is that while university courses may be taught by teachers who may not have a tenure track position, some are taught by those who have a full-time job in another area, but want to do some teaching and are willing to accept the terms and lower university payments.
As suggested above, the future will likely see an increased delivery of online courses which will affect both the demand for regular university courses at particular institutions, and a reduced demand for faculty both full and part-time. Today’s dispute over sessional lecturers relates to conditions prevailing in the past not the future.
Kevin Carey notes that full time enrollment is increasing, as universities are still seen as the places where credentials are recognized by employers. It will take time for universities to incorporate online teaching and for other institutions to establish the value of their credentials. My guess is that the changes will come from the demand side as students (and their parents) discover ways to reduce educational costs and still get recognized credentials.