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Picketers block the Keele street entrance to York University in Toronto, Ont. on Tuesday March 3, 2015. Even as access has greatly expanded, most universities have decided that, to staff their classrooms at reasonable cost, they must turn, in varying degrees, to contract instructors and teaching-track faculty.J.P. Moczulski/The Globe and Mail

The battle between York University and almost 4,000 striking workers over the lack of job security for contract faculty is underscoring a major shift in how undergraduate students are educated across the country.

Even as access has greatly expanded, Canadian universities say they can no longer afford to deliver higher education through tenured academics who may spend more than a third of their time engaged in research. Instead, most universities have decided that, to staff their classrooms at reasonable cost, they must turn, in varying degrees, to contract instructors and teaching-track faculty.

"With the current funding regime, we cannot afford for the university to have all courses taught by tenure-track appointments, although the research is important," York University president Mamdouh Shoukri said in an interview.

The shift is changing the undergraduate experience. Most students at large and medium-sized universities will have limited contact with their universities' top, internationally ranked talent. Instead, they are taught by professors who have more education but less job security than high school teachers. Some observers are beginning to wonder if universities are making the right choice. A report suggested last year that, rather than create a two or three-tiered labour force, universities should encourage tenured professors with middling research output to spend more time teaching.

However, universities are moving in the opposite direction.

"The next evolution is to make sure we can offer more positions to people who will spend more time on teaching and as such partly solve the problem while maintaining as much of the research outcome as we can," Dr. Shoukri said.

CUPE 3903, the union representing York's striking workers, realizes the future will look nothing like the past. Research-intensive positions will be a privilege earned by a few professors. In the current dispute, the union is fighting to get multiyear contracts for sessional instructors who now have to reapply each year for their jobs.

"Our members do 64 per cent of the teaching and make up 8 per cent of the university's budget," said Faiz Ahmed, the chair of CUPE 3903.

Ideally, the union would like the university to give sessional instructors priority for teaching-track jobs, which do not have tenure, but have more job security than contract positions.

"The university has brought teaching-track faculty into the university, we have no ability to influence that. If the university is creating those jobs, we have the staff to be able to fill those jobs," Mr. Ahmed said.

The issue reaches far beyond York University.

Sessional instructors at the University of Toronto negotiated with the university over job security, and the faculty association recently signed an agreement that will govern the hiring and promotion of teaching-track faculty. At the University of British Columbia, the administration and the contract workers' association are also talking about working conditions.

The numbers reveal the change in the makeup of Canadian universities. An explosion in undergraduate enrolments across Canada – 400,000 more students from 2002 to 2012 – has come without a corresponding increase in tenure-track faculty. While the number of professors doubled between the 1980s and 2006, there was a decline of 10 per cent in tenure and tenure-track faculty.

Still, some universities are acutely aware of the need to have all their faculty in the classroom as much as possible.

"We must never lose sight of the imperative that teaching by research-active faculty is one of the most important things that distinguish us from our competitors," McMaster University provost David Wilkinson wrote in a recent memo to faculty on the need to balance teaching and research.

And last year, a much-debated report from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario suggested that if professors whom it has classified as laggards in research doubled their teaching time, it would be the equivalent of adding 1,500 faculty members across the province.

The members of the York union who are now on strike, or the approximately 1,000 sessional instructors at U of T who will vote on a tentative agreement soon, may never have tenure. But the system is worth preserving, Mr. Ahmed believes.

"The only way the academy can move forward is if we have a system that allows for innovation and knowledge."

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