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

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Low wages for teachers and high tuition for students shortchange both groups.

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.

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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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 08/24/2012 - 12:31 pm.

    Nice to see….

    …that the Center [actually, Campaign according to it’s website) for the Future of Higher Education can take time away from “supporting Occupy Wall Street”, “Support[ing] Public Employees in Ohio”, defeating ‘Calls for “accountability” and “efficiency”’ to fit in a demand for more no-strings loot.

    The question is, will MinnPost have to declare this propaganda piece as a donation? Wouldn’t really hurt since there is no public disclosure by the Campaign anyway.

    BTW, what does a four year tour of the UMN cast these days? I had thought tuition was so high leftists were complaining….but turns out it’s not enough.

    Go figure.

  2. Submitted by Richard Grayson on 08/24/2012 - 03:42 pm.

    The race is not always to the swift…

    Mr. Swift appears not to have read the entire report, nor does he seem to wish to deal with the actual issues involved in the prevalence of contingent faculty hiring, often at the last minute.

    As an English instructor, I’d like to point out some errors in his comments:

    “it’s [sic] website” should be “its website.” “It’s” means “it is.” “Its” is the possessive pronoun.

    Also, commas go before the closing quotation marks, not after them.

    Of course, the more serious problem in some writing is the lack of coherent, logcial, relevant content.

  3. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 08/24/2012 - 11:27 pm.

    As a former academic

    who was both part-time and full-time during her career, I was dismayed to read recently that the average wages for adjuncts are less in real terms than I was receiving in 1982-84.

    Oregon State University, where I taught from 1984-86, was a “pioneer” in trying to offer education on the cheap, and it was horrible for faculty morale. I was relatively lucky, being on a full-time, year-to-year appointment. A few members of my department, the Foreign Language Department, were on tenure-track or tenured appointments. Many were on quarter-to-quarter appointments and did not know whether they would be able to teach or not until the Friday before classes started.

    Here’s how the system worked. There was no preregistration. Each department placed in the quarterly class schedule a list of the courses that its full-time and adjunct faculty were willing to offer. The students showed up, chose the courses they wanted, and waited for the results. Each department chair received a printout stating how many students had requested each class and was then expected to go to the dean of his or her college and plead for a departmental budget.

    If fewer than 28 students requested a beginning language class (the classes most often taught by adjuncts) it was cancelled. If fewer than 12 students requested a higher-level language class, it was cancelled. If more students requested a class than the classroom could hold, the department chair was expected to hire new adjuncts over the weekend. A couple of the faculty were qualified to teach two languages (e.g. a native speaker of German whose academic background was in French, a native speaker of Italian whose academic background was in Spanish, a professor of French who also taught Latin), but they didn’t know until the weekend which language they would be teaching on Monday.

    Some hapless adjuncts had all their courses or most of their courses cancelled. In such cases, they had to run around to the University of Oregon or the community colleges to try to patch together enough money to live on.

    I taught Japanese, which was enjoying a surge in popularity. The former “go-to” adjunct had gotten married and moved away, so when Beginning Japanese received 95 requests, the department chair told me to find instructors over the weekend. It was fortunate that two graduate students from Japan who had acted as conversation practice partners for my students the previous year were available, because everyone else I asked thought it was ridiculous that I was asking them to move to Corvallis, Oregon for a ten-week job. There was no guarantee that the two graduate students, despite being native speakers, would make good language teachers, but fortunately, they were friends and worked together and with me to create good courses.

    Despite the fact that Oregon State emphasizes science and technology, the Math Department suffered a different version of cost-cutting, in which the professors were asked to accept larger and larger classes. The English Department rarely hired Freshman Writing instructors for more than three years at a time.

    How did this affect the quality of instruction? The strain on the faculty was obvious. What I noticed among the students was that they expected to be anonymous. They expected me not to know who they were, even though I made a point of learning everyone’s name. Their presumption of anonymity prompted poor behavior and more attempts at cheating than at other institutions.

    Corvallis, Oregon, was one of the pleasantest and most attractive towns I ever lived in. But the university administration’s constant emphasis on cost-cutting sent me searching for another job.

    That’s the reality of a university system where the emphasis is only on the bottom line and not on educational quality. It’s not a partisan issue. I’m sure that all parents want their children to be taught by faculty who have time to plan their courses carefully and can give each student individual attention instead of having to run off to teach another class at a school forty miles away.

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