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Faculty unions say North American universities are increasingly turning to contract positions, and the shift is creating a lost generation of young academics.dolgachov/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Statistics Canada will dive into one of the hottest issues in Canadian postsecondary education and begin to look at the question of how many part-time and contract professors teach in the country's universities.

The move was announced by Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan on Thursday as part of a revival and expansion of a national employment survey of full-time faculty that ran annually since 1937. However, the survey was cancelled in the 2012 federal budget.

Accurate statistics about how many professors are working on short-term contracts is essential, the minister said.

"We are reversing the funding [cut] because we need the data," Ms. Duncan said. "We need to know how universities are evolving, so the data can be used in system-wide studies," she said.

Universities will be able to use the new information for work-force renewal, the minister added.

"The results may help universities create a more inclusive, diverse faculty body that reflects Canada today," she said.

The University and College Academic Staff System (UCASS) collected information about the salary, position, age, gender and education of every full-time professor working at a Canadian university. Thursday's announcement marks a major expansion of the survey to look at instructors working on short-term contracts, commonly known as sessionals.

Faculty unions say North American universities are increasingly turning to sessionals instead of hiring for tenure-track positions, and the shift is creating a lost generation of young academics. Many postsecondary institutions dispute that, arguing that they are hiring professors who specialize in teaching rather than research, but that there has been no explosion in the number of contract instructors.

The debate shows why it is important to have evidence, Statistics Canada said.

"There has been an evolution in the system, to part-time or not regular faculty-type members teaching. We want to be able to capture that population," said Michael Martin, the chief of the Education Finance and Indicators division of Statistics Canada.

Consultations with universities on how to define "contract" professor are expected to take up to four years. Mr. Martin says the agency is hopeful that the clear necessity for the data will lead to co-operation.

"It's going to take that long to decide, first the extent to which certain things are feasible or not feasible, and to put things together for collection," he said. "There is a good feeling about this and a lot of demand."

Funding for the survey has been increased to make it possible to do the additional work on part-time professors, as well as to collect information on college instructors. A separate set of discussions will take place with colleges.

Faculty groups said the survey could eventually answer many of the questions they have been asking for years.

"We need to understand who these contract faculty are," said Judy Bates, the president of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA). "Are there more men than women, what kind of areas are they concentrated in, do they have PhDs?"

OCUFA says its own analysis showed that the number of students who are taught by contract faculty has doubled since 2001.

Prior research using the UCASS survey has looked at the gender pay gap and how it changed over time, retirement projections and salary levels.

During the years that the information was not being collected, there was still steady demand from researchers.

"My first reaction was relief," said Teresa Omiecinski, the survey manager for UCASS, who has worked on the project since 1991. " I was pleased because we had so many requests for the data in the years that it was cancelled," she said.

The first new results will be released in April, 2017.

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