Fair Employment Week (FEW), which is organized by the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), takes place this year from October 16 to 20, 2023. Each year the Faculty Association participates in this national event that raises awareness of the difficulties inherent in being a member of the sessional academic staff.
Universities across Canada, including the University of Calgary, continue to lean on sessional academic staff as a low-pay, flexible workforce. At the University of Calgary sessional instructors are typically contracted to teach individual courses; they are not usually expected to do research and they are not offered long-term or even medium-term commitments beyond the individual courses.
The Collective Agreement states that continuing appointments are to be used to meet the continuing staffing needs of the University whenever reasonably practical (Article 23.1). We recognize that there are situations when sessionals are appropriate. Experts employed elsewhere who hold specific expertise may be hired for a particular course or there can be situations in which a faculty requires an instructor to fill a short-term (12 months or less) vacancy such as when an ongoing academic staff member is on leave. The reasons a sessional appointment can be used are outlined in the Collective Agreement under Article 23.2.
However, the University of Calgary’s reliance on sessionals for teaching is increasing. Each year the Faculty Association receives a list of the courses taught at the University of Calgary and who the instructors were. Based on this limited information, the Association estimates that sessionals were responsible for 33 per cent of the courses taught in 2022-2023 and this has increased from an estimated 22 per cent in 2017-2018.
Given the increased reliance on sessionals, we believe this demonstrates that there is a continuing need for academic staff that ought to be met with continuing appointments and we have filed grievances on this basis in Faculties with particularly high reliance on sessional staff.
None of this discussion is intended to diminish the hard work and contributions made by sessionals to the University. Sessional academic staff contribute immensely to the University and collectively play a major role in the instruction of courses at the University. It is important to recognize the hard work of sessional academic staff and be aware of the precarity in which they often find themselves. Many sessionals are experienced academics with significant teaching experience that need to reapply for their job every year and sometimes every semester; often knowing that the programs they teach in would collapse without them.
The problem of reliance on casual work is not unique to the University of Calgary. Sessionals here and across the country are in a very precarious position as these academics work from contract to contract, being paid for piecework with few benefits.
The Faculty Association will continue to work within our institution and with our national organization, CAUT, to improve the working conditions of sessional academics and to reduce the casualization of work in the academy. We encourage all academic staff to discuss these issues with each other to help create awareness of the issues faced by our sessional academic staff.