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Low-wage, high-tuition model for higher ed is a disaster for teachers, students

Higher-education institutions are too often waiting until the last minute to hire low-wage adjuncts and fixed-term faculty.

Low wages for teachers and high tuition for students shortchange both groups.
REUTERS/Jonathan Alcorn

Just in time for fall semester, the second report from the Center for the Future of Higher Education  is now out. Entitled, “Who is Professor ‘Staff,’ and how can this person teach so many classes?” the report [PDF] critiques the trends in higher-education employment that have rapidly moved in the direction of a low-wage and high-tuition model.

Jeff Kolnick

Borrowing from just-in-time models of industrial production and distribution, higher-education institutions are too often waiting until the last minute to hire low-wage adjuncts and fixed-term faculty to teach jampacked courses with late and limited access to instructional resources, shortchanging students.

There are many problems associated with this mismanagement of valuable human resources. Not the least of them is the failure to provide adequate conditions for contingent faculty to act professionally; after all, faculty working conditions are student learning conditions. 

The report was drafted by Steve Street, Maria Maisto, and Esther Merves of the New Faculty Majority and Gary Rhoades, the Center for the Future of Higher Education’s director. The report is based on a survey of 500 contingent faculty nationwide, conducted in the 2011. Faculty associations and university and colleges are encouraged to use the survey to help identify areas that need improvement in terms of teaching and learning

Key findings in survey

Four key findings need to be addressed as we continue to reform higher education. 

1. “Just-in-time” hiring is bad for teachers and for students. Of the faculty surveyed, approximately two-thirds of them were hired for classes with three weeks or fewer to prepare. This creates a series of significant problems for teachers, ranging from ordering books to developing meaningful and challenging courses, to being forced to work on these things under enormous pressure and without pay. For students, it causes significant challenges in planning out a semester’s work, often leading to prolonging the time to graduation. At a minimum, colleges and universities need to commit to hiring faculty, in nonemergency cases, at least three months before classes begin.

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2. Contingent faculty, particularly those with part-time status, get late and limited access to key instructional resources. This includes high-tech online resources, once again creating a profoundly adverse impact on students and their learning conditions. Contingent faculty consistently reported limited access to copying services, library privileges, private office space, sample syllabi, or access to computer and software information systems. These conditions limit the ability of contingent faculty to perform up to their ability and diminish the experience of students who pay for these classes. At a minimum, colleges and universities need to commit to providing the same resources to contingent faculty as those they provide to permanent faculty. 

3. The current just-in-time and late/limited access to instructional resources regime is NOT a result of fiscal and flexibility restraints; rather it results from managerial inattention to what is needed for a quality education. While there are diminishing resources going to higher education, the report points out several cost-free or low-cost ways of solving the above problems. At a minimum, colleges and universities need to adopt best practices to end this situation. 

4. The timing of hiring of contingent faculty needs to become transparent, and administrators need to make clear the instructional resources available to contingent faculty when hired. Ignorance is not bliss. If colleges and universities are going to talk about quality education, they need to do so based on the sort of data provided by the study’s survey on back-to-school employment practices for contingent faculty.

Time to stop the slide

The rush to the low-wage, high-tuition model of higher education is a disaster for those who teach and those who learn. It is time to stop the slide and to reinvest in public higher education. We need to move away from just-in-time hiring, and when it is necessary we need to create conditions where the professionals who are hired have everything they need to excel at their craft.  

Jeff Kolnick is an associate professor of history at Southwest Minnesota State University.

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