Shauna Brail never planned on a career as a university professor. With family in Toronto, she could not move to wherever in the world an academic job was offered. So when she graduated with a PhD from the University of Toronto in the 1990s, she went to work for government and as a consultant in urban planning.
The fact that she is now an associate professor in the urban studies department at her alma mater is due to the fact Dr. Brail kept up a research program, but also to a nationwide shift in who is teaching Canada's students, one that is redefining what makes a good professor and that, over time, will challenge what separates universities from any other type of education.
More than 40 Canadian universities provided The Globe and Mail with data on their faculty ranks. In spite of differences among universities, what becomes clear is that teaching-focused positions have seen consistent and sharp increases at many of the country's most prominent postsecondary institutions, and the model is growing at smaller schools as well. Unlike research-focused faculty, teaching instructors lack the iron-clad job guarantees and academic freedom that come with tenure, as well as the ability to progress through to the highest levels of academia.
Dr. Brail has a teaching appointment – she still does research, both about pedagogy and urban geography, but more of her time is spent in the classroom than the library.
For her students, there have been clear benefits to her focus on teaching. She has connected them to community-service jobs and has organized trips to New York's tenement museum and Chicago's City Hall during reading week.
"If I was a research-based professor, I would be staying home and writing."
Keeping up with enrolment
To many institutions, teaching-focused appointments can reconcile seemingly incompatible goals: improving learning quality, containing tenured faculty salaries and advancing research.
For more than a decade, universities have struggled to do all three. Student enrolment across the country has grown 40 per cent since the turn of the millennium, and in that time, students have also sharply increased their contribution to university coffers to make up for declining government funds.
That rise in enrolment has not been matched among faculty: Between 2000 and 2011 – the last year Statistics Canada kept track – the number of full-time tenured professors increased about 30 per cent.
At most large and even medium-sized institutions, one of the main sources of student unhappiness is the lack of contact with senior faculty.
Teaching-track faculty hold the promise of resuscitating university education on a more personal scale. They have 20 per cent more time to teach than do research, and usually get their jobs because they've proven they care about the student experience.
'Creators of knowledge'
Yet separating teaching and research could make universities not that different from colleges or high school.
"The difference between universities and other educational institutions is that we are not just disseminators of knowledge, we are creators of knowledge," said Chris Manfredi, provost at McGill University. "We want our professors to be able to communicate the knowledge they are creating to the students."
McGill has chosen to make other sacrifices, increasing class sizes in first and second years, although the university declined to provide a breakdown of its faculty numbers.
"Some of our students have argued that McGill does not provide as much contact … We argue it's high-quality contact," Dr. Manfredi said.
Schools that have chosen to bulk up their teaching numbers, however, say the benefits for undergraduate learning are too great to ignore.
"Part of the rationale behind [teaching-track hires] is a recognition that teaching and learning has gotten much more complex in the last 15 years or so," said Simon Bates, the academic director of the Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology at the University of British Columbia. "There is so much open educational content, that there's a valid question as to what is the role of the instructor. It's certainly not simply standing in a classroom giving students content they could get from a multitude of sources."
Since 2006, teaching appointments have increased by more than 40 per cent at UBC, compared to a 12 per cent rise in tenure-track hires.
Some research shows that non-tenured staff can be as effective, if not more effective, than tenured professors. A 2013 study from the U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research found that undergrads taught by academics working on long-term contracts, but without tenure, were more likely to take a second course in the subject and had results as good as, or slightly better than, students taught by tenured staff.
At the same time, hiring teachers first and researchers second has distinct benefits for universities. The former are cheaper, for one: UBC's faculty association has argued that teaching professors can have so many classes that they end up being paid less than contract instructors who are paid by the course. And their work allows established and recognized researchers to devote even more of their time to that part of the job.
In the global race for university rankings, the hardest currency is that of subject-specific publications in refereed journals. Even as they inadvertently help their research colleagues, though, teaching faculty can sometimes feel like second-class citizens.
In a comprehensive 2011 study by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, half of teaching-focused faculty said they lack the status of their tenured colleagues.
The best way to combat that feeling, Dr. Brail said, is to stay active as a researcher. For example, she has worked with David Hulchanski, the university's team leader on an extensive project examining income and social polarization in Canada's urban centres.
"Whether research is expected or not, doesn't mean you shouldn't do it," she said. "Most faculty in the teaching stream will tell you they need to be engaged in research in their field."
For faculty unions, that reality – of professors who continue their research while they have teaching, or even contract, appointments – is one reason they have been reluctant to embrace this new type of academic.
Universities, they say, are moving to a future where there are fewer tenure-track jobs and more contract instructors – one of the main points of contention in this spring's strikes at York and the University of Toronto. They say teaching faculty are an improvement to this kind of precarious labour situation, but not a solution.
"All of us came through a research program, we went to grad school and finished our grad school programs in part because we enjoyed research," said Robin Vose, the president of the Canadian Association of University Teachers. "… We recognize that it's an attempt to give people a decent wage and a bit of recognition, but it fails to see that it's a splitting of academic jobs that is fundamentally unfair."
A move toward equality
Still, universities can improve the status of the teaching specialists they do hire by making such positions almost equivalent to tenure-track ones. That's what happened this summer at the University of Toronto, (which followed the model UBC adopted several years ago). Salaries are still lower, but titles and promotions follow an almost identical path. Making such changes is good for building respect between colleagues and improving everyone's teaching, UBC's Dr. Bates said.
"These people become the catalysts within their departments. They are able to infect other faculty members with new pedagogical practices much faster than waiting for these things to be adopted."
The promise of improving educational quality makes professors who are teachers first and researchers second an easy sell. The danger, particularly as tuition continues to rise, is that parents and students could begin to ask a simple question: What makes university education so different after all?
Dwindling tenure-track academic jobs are raising questions about what Canada is going to do with all of its PhDs
Derritt Mason is an academic unicorn. A month after successfully defending his PhD in English, he had a tenure-track appointment lined up at the University of Calgary, only the third job for which he had applied.
"I was incredibly lucky," Dr. Mason, who also organized conferences, won scholarships and published papers while a student, says modestly. Many others are similarly hard-working, he adds. "I have so many amazing colleagues who are so deserving of jobs, but sometimes there just aren't jobs."
Chris Bolin/for The Globe and Mail
Numbers collected by the Globe and Mail show just how improbable Dr. Mason's experience is. Mid-sized and smaller universities are hiring instructors primarily for short-term and long-term contracts, at rates that far exceed the number of permanent hires. Contract instructors teach more than half of students, faculty unions have said. They face a life of travelling between campuses to make a living, with little time for the kind of research that could land them a tenure-track job, or even allow them work-life balance. It's far from the dreams of most grad students.
"When the rate of pay is $7,500 a course, you need to be teaching quite a large number of courses to be able to cobble together rent or a mortgage payment," said Judy Bates, president of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations.
Across the country, institutions in charge of producing PhDs have now grown alarmed enough that many are exploring what they can do to help students, and stay relevant in the face of declining academic job prospects. The first step is to track graduates' outcomes and follow those who don't become professors, as well as those who do.
"That combats the persistent myth that students who don't go into teaching are failures, and also so that students have a better understanding of what they can actually do with that degree," said Jessica Edge, who led a Conference Board of Canada study on PhD programs being released later this fall.
What everyone rejects is reducing graduate programs. The rise in the number of PhDs is not a problem, universities say, but a solution to Canada's innovation shortcomings.
In comparative terms, we have one of the lowest rates of PhD production in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, and increasing that number has been recommended as a way of encouraging investment in research and development.
Not so fast, others say. This past spring, a report from the Council of Canadian Academies found that high PhD graduation rates, particularly in some science and math fields, don't directly lead to increased productivity or innovation.
Japan is the most often cited cautionary tale. There, after overreaching in its push to produce doctoral graduates, the government had to set up a $5-million fund for business to hire unemployed PhDs. Governments and universities will decide whether Canada will reach that point, or if it can successfully redeploy its PhDs outside the Ivory Tower.