What If We Were All Adjunct (Sessional) Professors?

The composition of the academic labor market has changed profoundly over the last few decades. Gone are the days when most professors were employed on tenure-track or tenured lines. Today, the vast majority of university courses, at least in the United States and increasingly elsewhere, are taught by adjunct professors with no job security.

The system is not ideal because it has created a labor aristocracy of permanently employed academics and an industrial reserve army of contingent lecturers. But here’s the million-dollar question: what is to be done?

We already know the answer from the point of view of the sessional lecturers. What about the academic labor aristocracy?

Some—indeed most—permanent academics have argued for a return to an inflexible labor market in which the majority of positions are tenure-track or tenured. Okay. Let’s talk about the elephant in the room, shall we? The job losses wrought by COVID-19 over the last couple of years have been absorbed largely by adjuncts, leaving most, though not all, tenure-track and tenured professors in employment. If all academics were “permanent,” that label would cease to mean anything resembling permanent. Financial exigency always overrides tenure.

So let’s get real. We’re never going back to an inflexible academic labor market. It’s fantasy to think that everyone can get a “permanent” contract. Then the question becomes: should we stick with the current two-tiered system or . . . should we all be adjunct professors? Hear me out. What if we agreed on some middle ground so that everyone can be treated equally and fairly?

Imagine an academic labor market in which everyone received five-year renewable contracts that automatically renew if KPIs are met. This would be a huge step up for our industrial reserve army of contingent lecturers, but how can we entice the academic labor aristocracy to give up their permanent contracts for such a system? Money. I suspect that most tenured professors would be willing to consider giving up their “job for life” contracts in exchange for, say, an additional 50% of salary. Universities could afford this because they would no longer carry the financial liability of paying underperforming permanent staff for decades.

“I suspect that most tenured professors would be willing to consider giving up their ‘job for life’ contracts in exchange for, say, an additional 50% of salary.”

Academics are quick to cast aspersions on the “marketization” of higher education. But maybe the problem isn’t marketization; it’s that there isn’t enough marketization. Our job is to create excellent research and provide excellent teaching. In a more flexible labor market, people could specialize in one or the other—so we can get rid of this nonsense that everyone has to be excellent in both areas. Best of all, compensation would go up dramatically for those who can deliver and job security wouldn’t disappear: it would simply depend on mutually agreed performance targets.

Would you be willing to give up a permanent contract for a higher salary? I would.

Professor Andrew R. Timming

This article is published under a Creative Commons 4.0 License.

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