Ontario voters are not willing to consider paying higher taxes to support postsecondary education and don't believe the issue of professors increasingly teaching on contract is a high priority, a new poll has found.
The poll of 1,000 respondents was commissioned by the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA) and shows the public is not engaged in a topic that has led to heated debates within academia.
There are no current national statistics on contract teachers, but numbers collected by The Globe and Mail last year revealed that the number of temporary faculty at different schools ranges between 15 and 50 per cent of university instructors.
But only 15 per cent of respondents to the poll – which will be released Thursday – agreed that academics face precarious employment.
"Food service, hospitality and retail are things that people identified first, and I think that's an accurate reflection of how things are. For profs, there is a perception that they have permanent jobs and the working conditions are good," said André Turcotte, an associate professor at Carleton University's School of Journalism and Communication and an expert in public opinion research, who co-authored the poll.
Professors working on short-term contracts may be paid anywhere from $5,000 to $7,000 a course and may teach at different campuses to pull together a full-time salary.
OCUFA argues their numbers have been rising, affecting the quality of education.
"As more contract workers are employed, there are fewer [permanent] people to do the work that needs to be done. Full-time professors are teaching larger classes and taking on more service work – it has a negative impact on students," said Judy Bates, the president of OCUFA.
To convince the public that the issues faced by contract faculty matter, advocacy groups will have to increasingly make an argument about how those problems affect undergraduate students, Dr. Turcotte said.
Even that will be difficult, as few respondents see a crisis brewing in the province's universities. Instead, two-thirds of those polled believe that the quality of education has stayed the same or improved. And only 40 per cent would consider paying higher taxes to support increased funding for postsecondary education, with women even less willing to do so.
Many, however, have doubts about whether universities do a good job of preparing students for the workplace: 45 per cent of people think they do not.
"Most people are not concerned about postsecondary education. It's not in the top three or four issues they are facing. ... Making the link between importance of university education for employment needs to be constantly reinforced," Dr. Turcotte said.
The survey also suggests that university administrations are unlikely to face much public opposition if they shift even more of their teaching work to contract professors. Hiring professors on contract is supported by 40 per cent of those polled.
Faculty groups have pointed out the inferior working conditions of contract instructors, from the lack of office space to the absence of pensions. That's a good strategy, Dr. Turcotte said, as many people do believe that part-time faculty should be treated the same as permanent academics.
"Most people think conditions are actually better than they actually are," he said. "There is misinformation and disconnect between reality and what's going on. People expect that part-time faculty have time to prepare their courses, that they are given first pick when courses are available."
That's a strategy the faculty association is already pursuing, Dr. Bates said.
"We need to make this issue much more obvious. We are working with the government on legislation around labour employment to try and improve working conditions, to improve access to benefits and improve access to pensions," she said.
Simona Chiose will be moderating a panel on the results of the poll Thursday at OCUFA's annual conference in Toronto.