Are Universities Learning from Wal-Mart? Adjunct Welfare, Tuition Fees & Budget Cuts

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently published an article on people with doctoral degrees working as adjunct professors who have to claim food stamps to live: From Graduate School to Welfare. Adjunct professors are members of contingent faculty (that is, not on a tenure track or permanent contract) who are paid to teach by the hour, usually just for a few hours a week. Usually their contracted hours do not meet the minimum to qualify for employment benefits like health insurance and pension schemes. According to the Chronicle,

some leaders of scholarly associations … are surprised to hear of graduate-degree holders being on public assistance.

James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, said in an e-mail that he consulted with his staff, and “nobody has ever heard of this among our members or other historians.”

“No e-mails, no postings or tweets,” he wrote. “That doesn’t mean it’s not out there. It just means that historians on public assistance have not crossed AHA communications.”

Perhaps the reason few scholarly societies are aware of this phenomenon of adjunct professors on state support is that if things are so financially tight that you are claiming benefits, you may well be prioritizing meeting your immediate, basic needs over being a member of your professional association. Also, since adjuncts do not normally have any say in university governance (that would require them to be paid to attend meetings), their voices are not heard around those tables, or while walking back to offices afterwards. (Many adjuncts don’t have offices to walk to.) It strikes me that maybe people haven’t thought this through; they just haven’t done the math. The article cites shame as the main reason colleagues and academic societies don’t know about this problem. Rosalind Gill suggests that ‘financial hardship can be masked – and rendered difficult to speak of – by academics’ educational and cultural capital’ (page 8 of the PDF of her article ‘Breaking the Silence’). So, in the spirit of helping to dispel shame and speaking out, I’ll share some of my experiences.

For me, adjunct teaching was a temporary situation, a stepping stone in to a full-time, permanent academic post. Before starting my PhD, I’d worked full time for just over two years. I started out doing various kind of temporary office work, then got work as a legal secretary in a Fortune 500 company. I knew being a full time university student was going to be tricky financially, but I had some savings, as well as funding that covered my tuition and paid a stipend, so I wasn’t unduly concerned. During my PhD I successfully applied for different sources of funding. Things were tight, but I did ok. After submitting my PhD, and for the months between finishing my corrections and obtaining a permanent job, I qualified for and claimed housing benefit. At that stage, our priorities were keeping a roof over our heads, feeding ourselves, and paying our bills. My partner had private pupils. I taught tutorial classes for two different courses in my graduate school, sang with a small professional choir, and worked part-time in the university library. That library assistant job required school level qualifications (GCSEs, if I remember rightly) rather than a PhD, and it was paid accordingly. (As it happened, many of us working those hours had postgraduate degrees, which meant that library visitors could get quite a bit of research help on a quiet evening: a bonus both for the person needing help, and for the library. The people who were stiffed were those of us with advanced research skills being underpaid and, worse still, those people with GCSEs as their highest qualification who couldn’t get a library assistant job because of all the underemployed PhDs applying for them.) And I enjoyed my work: all of it. In addition to my paid work, I did unpaid community work. I volunteered as the newsletter editor of a local sustainability organization, and joined a group campaigning for our city to become a fair-trade city. I gained valuable skills from all of those experiences, and I enjoyed working in all those different environments. Nor did I feel personally disrespected. In theory, I could opt in to a pension scheme (I did not: eating was more important), and my salary included a certain amount added on as holiday pay. I no longer remember the rates of pay. What I do remember is that those were very difficult times financially and I don’t think I could have coped another year. My partner and I only managed to survive that period of underemployment with the help and support of friends and family, an understanding landlord, and the state. The state helped me get my PhD, and then helped me through stressful times immediately afterwards, and I’m very grateful. I worked my way back up to (and beyond) the salary I had left.

Hourly paid teaching on insecure, fixed term contracts is a long term employment situation for some. Universities increasingly rely on adjunct faculty work because it is cheap and flexible. Contracts run only during the teaching year—no need to pay people in the summer months when there’s no teaching—and the contracts are fixed term, usually for one year at a time, so if demand for a course changes, the contract isn’t renewed and there’s no need to pay compensation. (There are local variations depending upon employment laws.) Adjunct lecturers don’t get paid for teaching preparation, which can take upwards of two hours for every one hour of contact time (newer courses need more prep, and of course, prep starts in the summer so that the syllabus is ready by the time term starts); they often don’t get paid extra for grading; they don’t get paid to deal with course-related student inquiries; and they don’t get paid to research. Most do undertake research—they need to do it in order to be able to teach their subject well, and besides, research is essential to land a tenure track/permanent post—but they aren’t compensated for it. In the US, many institutions do not offer adjuncts and other contingent faculty any employment benefits like an institutional health insurance plan and pension, thus saving further on costs (and making things harder for the contingent faculty member). And most universities do not offer their adjuncts continuing professional development opportunities. So, it’s no surprise to me to find that many adjuncts do not earn a wage they can live on. Moreover, adjunct professors are unlikely to be the only group of university employees eligible for state support: I was an hourly-paid assistant lecturer and a university library assistant when I claimed housing benefit; I’m sure there are many other groups whose hours and wages are low enough to land them in the benefits office.

The situation of employees with part-time hours and terrible benefits who need welfare to live might sound familiar, because it’s how Wal-Mart runs its business. Of course there are important differences, both in terms of profit margins (Wal-Mart makes a huge profit; universities do not), and in terms of the employees’ situations. As Robert Pankin and Carla Weiss point out,

compared to other part-time workers, part-time faculty are  better educated, experience job instability due to changing conditions in academic labor markets rather than in the larger economy, and have marginal status among their colleagues although they command full status from students. The position carries some prestige and recognition compared to other industries where the part-timer is a marginal worker.

A wide range of people choose to become adjuncts, and there is a corresponding range of responses to the experience. There are positive stories over at Adjunct Nation (e.g. P. D. Lesko and Randy Eldridge), and there are also stories of disrespect, desperation and alienation, as well as poverty. Some, like Dr. Anna Tarrant in England, may have the opportunity to move from adjunct teaching to longer fixed term research contracts: no longer adjunct professors, but still part of the contingent workforce. Pankin and Weiss find that those most likely to be distressed by their situation are those who earn all their income from adjunct work:

The group that sees part-time academic work as most problematical has been labeled “freeway flyers,” those who juggle several part-time jobs at more than one institution in order to make a living…. Part-timers who want full-time academic careers derive less satisfaction from college recognition. They are more focused on the job assignment (teaching) and are detached from the academic community. They have less formal contact with other faculty. On the other hand, part-timers experience less role conflict and job stress than do full-timers.

There are some pluses to adjunct positions. They may be a way to bring people whose main work lies off campus in to the university—people who work full time, or pretty much full time, as lawyers, architects, therapists, musicians (who are accustomed to a portfolio career)—which can enrich the curriculum and the student experience. However, that adjunct teaching is a choice that some relish and that may have some benefits does not make everything all ok. One of the consequences of underpaying adjunct professors is that only those with other sources of support—a partner in full-time employment, say—can keep it up for any length of time. Underpayment, like unpaid internships, may serve to keep certain people out of academe altogether.

And there are consequences for the permanent/tenure faculty, students and the department, too. When full time ladder faculty leave (even temporarily on research contracts, like me) and are not fully replaced, or when student numbers go up but there is no corresponding increase in ladder faculty, the ratio of students to ladder faculty changes. And while adjuncts mean the student population can stay high, that change in ratio means ladder faculty workload (especially pastoral care and student-related admin) increases. The faculty then have less time available for research and teaching and…. Well, you get the picture. In most universities, adjuncts and fixed-term contract staff cannot be primary supervisors of research students because the university cannot guarantee that person’s contract will be renewed for the duration of the doctoral degree, so departments find themselves with fewer faculty to attract doctoral students in the first place. Planning ahead and making curriculum changes is hard when a department doesn’t know whether staff numbers will be the same from one year to the next. It can be difficult to experiment with new approaches to teaching if the professors delivering the courses are not being offered appropriate development opportunities and training. (The American Association of University Professors has identified a wide range of difficulties contingency can cause all flavours of faculty and institutions.)

Why the move to contingency? I assumed it was a result of funding cuts: when governments/states reduce the amount of money they invest in higher education, employee wages and benefits go down, and tuition costs rise. However, ‘diminishing investment in education‘ is also the result of management decisions to allocate more money to building projects than to teaching. Rosalind Gill (PDF) situates these developments within the context of changes in the creative world and university structures—within the ‘neoliberalisation of the work place’ (18). She also points out that many ladder faculty, who may have done a spot of adjunct work on the way to a full-time, permanent academic post, are complicit in the casualisation of academic labour.

The link between states cutting HE budgets and tuition rises is pretty clear. Students end up paying more for their education directly rather than paying indirectly through taxation. Not long after I arrived in Los Angeles in 2011, the University of California announced it would raise tuition fees to close a $1 billion budget shortfall. Students understand the challenges, and they protest the situation nonviolently. Last year, their protests were met with violence by campus police at UC Berkeley and at UC Davis, where non-violent protesters were pepper sprayed directly in the face. (The response both that day and in the following days when the UCD Chancellor walked to her car through hundreds of silent students was very powerful.) In Ireland, the state currently pays the tuition fees of a first undergraduate degree. Students do have to pay a registration fee which rises annually and the state sets the upper limit (and presumably universities lobby hard behind the scenes). The 2012 budget increased the maximum registration fee by €250, from €2,000 to €2,250. In 2010 in England and Wales, the ConDem government decided to phase out the teaching grant for arts, humanities and social science subjects. Fees have gone up (trebled, in some instances). Institutions that only teach arts subjects, like art and music colleges, are left in a particularly difficult situation without any state teaching support at all.*

A recent recruitment advert by the Royal College of Music may be the first indicator that English and Welsh institutions may respond to uncertainty by hiring contingent professors. The RCM intends to hire hourly-paid professors for various duties including postgraduate research supervision. Moreover,

as hourly-paid professors of the RCM, successful applicants would be expected to keep informed of developments within the relevant curriculum area both nationally and internationally, and would be encouraged to undertake research in areas consonant with the College’s research strengths.

The emphasis on research and the opportunity to supervise research students suggests to me this is a slightly different kettle of fish from the hourly-paid ‘stepping stone’ internal appointments filled by doctoral students and very recent graduates, and the hourly-paid positions that bring professionals in to the classroom as part of their portfolio career. In particular, I’m concerned about the ramifications for the graduate researcher. What are the ethical issues of hiring someone on an hourly basis to supervise a research student? How will it work? Does the professor bill by the hour, so that when the student needs more support, they get it? Or will professors be put in a situation of having to decide between telling research students they’ve had their quota of supervisory contact this month and simply going beyond their contracted hours? Will an hourly-paid professor be able to attend a research student’s conference presentations and give feedback? (I know even when the supervisor is full time, sometimes things come up which make it impossible to attend a conference. But as a general principle, faculty support their grad students by attending their conference presentations. And in my experience they often support their graduates that way too: if you’re reading, thank you!)

There’s a lot more to be said on the changes in higher education, but not by me just now. Professor Caroline Fennell, the head of my college at University College Cork, has shared her musings on the changing face of academic life in Ireland. There’s a really good analysis of the end of the public university over at Inside Higher Ed. I thoroughly recommend Rosalind Gill’s reflective essay: it’s worth linking to a third time.  And thinking more generally about hiring practices, I encourage you to look at J.P.E. Harper-Scott’s blog and help with his inquiry into unusually specific academic job ads.

What are your views/experiences?


* Can anyone can fill me in on developments in Scotland? I only found old info from 2004, and this 2008 piece on commuting to England for better pay. My own experiences as an undergraduate are rather out of date now. And what about other countries?