This year has seen a number of stories of high-level university executives in Canada being handsomely compensated for their troubles.
In January, for instance, the University of Alberta disclosed that president Indira Samarasekera received $1.1 million in total compensation last year. Then in March, Ontario's annual Sunshine List revealed that Western University president Amit Chakma had collected $924,000 in 2014, nearly half of which was paid in lieu of him exercising an administrative leave clause in his contract, though he offered to return part of the money after an outcry on campus.
And most recently, it came to light that McGill's former president, Heather Munroe-Blum, is collecting a $284,000 "supplementary pension" (i.e., in addition to her regular pension) every year of her retirement, a figure that is higher than the salaries of the vast majority of full tenured professors in Canada.
All this is happening, of course, in a period where many Canadian universities are tightening budgets, increasing class sizes and raising tuition and fees. And it's also happening at a time when universities are relying increasingly on precarious workers for teaching as well as for research.
Back in April, the Huffington Post published a blog by Andrew Robinson, a sessional lecturer at Carleton University, entitled "I Teach University Physics, But I'm on Government Assistance." Robinson explains how he and many of his colleagues, most of whom have PhDs, "are being shamelessly exploited by our employers." As a sessional lecturer, he has no job security, no pension, no vacation and is only paid $34,000 per year -- less than 10 per cent of the $355,000 Carleton University president Roseann Runte collected last year, and even less than the $49,000 in taxable benefits she received in addition to her salary. Yet Robinson and other sessional lecturers like him are responsible for teaching an increasing share of undergraduate students at the school.
Indeed, more and more, administrators are squeezing their workers as much as possible to cover teaching and research. Sessional lecturers are being used as low-cost labour for the former while the latter is now increasingly being undertaken by postdoctoral scholars.
The situation with postdocs -- all of whom, by definition, have PhDs -- is less well known, however, given that they tend to carry out research within universities on a full-time basis and don't always have the same level of interaction with students as lecturers. Nevertheless, they have become critical to the cutting edge research being done at Canadian universities, and their numbers nationally have doubled to about 10,000 in the last decade.
"I don't think that it is fair to expect someone to go through an extended period of education, and then three to five years of temporary, low-paid employment as a 'trainee' with no benefits."
In the case of Carleton University, many Canadians would be surprised to learn that despite their high academic training and advanced research skills, postdoctoral scholars can earn as little as $25,000 and are excluded from the benefits plans that other full-time staff at the university enjoy. Furthermore, these postdocs have no clear protections around academic freedom, no clear rights to intellectual property resulting from research they contribute to, little control over their working hours and no insurance top-up for parental leave.
This information comes from a 2013 Canadian Postdoc Survey produced by the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars (CAPS), one of the few sources of reliable information on the working conditions of postdocs across the country. It also revealed that their average age is 34, that seven in 10 are married or in common-law relationships, and that over a third have dependent children.
All this means that the low pay, subpar benefits and lack of additional support for parental leave prevalent in their sector is especially challenging as they start their families. Additionally, the CAPS survey clearly dispels the notion that postdoctoral work amounts to a short-term mentorship used to bridge completion of a PhD and employment as a university professor. With limited hiring at the professor level within universities these days, over a third of postdocs expect to remain in their roles for as long as five years.
As one survey respondent summarized it, "I don't think that it is fair to expect someone to go through an extended period of education, and then three to five years of temporary, low-paid employment as a 'trainee' with no benefits, probably in several different locations before they can even start to apply for permanent employment. The uncertainty is incredibly difficult, especially at a time when people are trying to maintain long term relationships and start families."
Now, while there's a broader discussion to be had about whether enough public money is being directed at institutions of higher education, universities clearly have money if they can afford to compensate their executives as generously as surveyed above. Just this month, in fact, the University of British Columbia announced that it had concluded its latest fundraising campaign after collecting $1.6 billion.
But at a more fundamental level, universities are public institutions, funded primarily with public money. While we might expect Walmart to treat its workers unfairly in the drive for profits, we should at least expect our public institutions to maintain a decent standard for all their workers. Regrettably, however, too many university administrators act like corporate managers, and all too often resist attempts by postdocs to win better terms for their work.
At Carleton, postdocs have sought a better deal by unionizing and have now been trying to negotiate a first contract -- assisted by the PSAC -- with the university since April 2014. And Carleton postdocs know that a better deal is possible, because at some other universities where PSAC has successfully organized postdocs, working conditions have dramatically improved. Consider Queen's University, where unionization has not only led to higher base wages but also contractual protections around intellectual property, academic freedom and hours of work, as well as strong parental leave provisions.
There's that notorious quote posing the rhetorical question: "Unions were good at one time, but haven't they outlived their usefulness?" Though we've all heard a variation of it at one point or another, it's actually attributed to a Globe & Mail piece from May 6, 1886, some 129 years ago.
The struggle for decent work never ends. Yes, it is 2015 and the situation postdocs find themselves in today clearly demonstrates that even highly trained, highly skilled workers must organize if they are to win decent working conditions.
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