Part-time Faculty: What We Know, and What We Don't

February 25, 2015

A few months ago, an anonymous adjunct faculty member in California started a campaign to designate today, Wednesday, February 25, as “National Adjunct Walkout Day,” accompanied by the hashtag #NAWD on Twitter. The goal is to draw attention to those faculty members who are providing a growing share of postsecondary instruction. Critics of “adjunctification,” including Quest University President Helfand, argue that the overuse of contract faculty is damaging to the quality of education being delivered students. “There is no way to give extensive feedback, to explore effective teaching strategies, or to keep current in a discipline if one has to rush off to another teaching gig after class in order to make ends meet,” Helfand wrote in a recent post to Rethinking Higher Ed.

But even though this trend has been going on for decades now, we’re still facing some significant holes in the data we have about contract faculty. We thought we’d take today as an opportunity to take a look at some of those gaps.

What We Know…

In the United States, where high quality data is collected by the Department of Education’s Center for Education Statistics, we can clearly see that the number of part-time faculty members has grown considerably since 1976. In that year, full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty made up 44.6% of instructional staff in higher education, with part-time faculty making up just 25.1%. However, in the nearly forty years since then, the two lines have moved in opposite direction: full-time tenured and tenure track faculty are now just 23.6% of instructional staff and part-time faculty are 41.5%. Part-timers have out-numbered full-time permanent faculty since at least 1999. Looking at contingent instructional staff more broadly, which includes full-time non-tenure-track faculty and graduate instructional staff in addition to part-time faculty, we can see that they now make up 76.4% of postsecondary instructional staff.

Figure 1: Full-Time, Part-Time, and Contingent Instructors in the United States (1976-2011)

In Canada, the data is, at best, incomplete. Ontario colleges have reported annually on the number of academic staff, broken down by part-time and full-time status. Public data only goes back to 2004, and since that time, the share of part-time faculty has increased from 62.1% to 67.5%; part-time faculty out-number full-time faculty more than two-to-one.

Figure 2: Academic Staff in Ontario Colleges by Employment Status (2004-2013)

Most Ontario universities do not report the number of part-time faculty they employ. Using data from Statistics Canada, we can, however, look at the relationship between enrolment growth and full-time faculty hiring. Since 1993, the number of university students has grown by 42.7% while the number of full-time faculty has grown only by 16.1%. As a result, the ratio of students per full-time faculty member has risen by 22.9%. (The dip between 2006 and 2009 is driven by slowing enrolment growth, rather than by accelerated full-time faculty hiring.)

Figure 3: Number of University Students per Full-Time Faculty Member in Ontario (1993-2011)

… And What We Don’t

In Canada, there is currently no national data on the usage of part-time faculty in colleges and universities. Statistics Canada has tracked the number of full-time faculty, but even this data collection was terminated in 2011. It appears this is reflective of a larger trend toward less collection of postsecondary education data by that agency, as discussed by Glen A. Jones in a recent post for Academica’s Rethinking Higher Ed forum. Within Ontario specifically, while colleges have clear definitions for full-time and part-time status, universities do not, making comparisons between institutions difficult, even if the numbers are available.

We also don’t know very much about the tens of thousands of people currently working as part-time postsecondary faculty. This includes even basic demographic information, like gender, age, qualifications, and length of time teaching. For instance, preliminary work in the US has suggested that while 46% of Ph.D. recipients in that country are women, they make up between 51% (according to the National Center for Education Statistics) and 62% (according to the Coalition on the Academic Workforce) of adjunct faculty.

While we know anecdotally that many part-timers teach at multiple institutions, we don’t know how widespread this practice is. Even institutional statistics cannot accurately capture this phenomenon. And while we do know the per-course pay of part-time faculty in Ontario, the exact distribution of this work between in-class teaching, and out-of-class work like marking, student meetings, and class development and preparation, is unclear. Many part-time faculty may also have other full-time employment, with teaching being something they do on the side, though this likely varies by discipline. It’s important to learn more about the career aspirations of part-timers: what proportion of them would prefer full-time, tenure-track professorships, as compared with those happy with teaching as an add-on.

Next Steps

Even though the trend toward increasing use of part-time faculty in universities and colleges extends back several decades, we are really at the beginning of a journey to learn more about this issue in Canada. Academica Group has recently begun work on a study, funded by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO), which will consist in part of an extensive survey of contract/part-time faculty in order to begin to answer some of these complicated questions. This is a pressing issue facing Canadian higher education in the decades to come, and we must address it head on, through evidence-based policy.