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Universities these days are confused and conflicted institutions.

When they're asking for money, justifying their mission to government and business leaders, or wooing applicants (and their deep-pocketed parents), Canadian schools dress themselves up in the shimmering finery of education-speak: excellence, innovation, competitiveness and accessibility.

But at the humdrum level of teaching undergraduates – as work stoppages by sessional lecturers and graduate assistants at two Toronto universities have emphasized this month – our centres of learning have got used to a makeshift, two-tier version of higher education.

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When your kids go off to university, they may be taught by short-term contract employees living hand-to-mouth, and assisted by struggling young grad students who are still trying to figure out the education game themselves.

Those superstar professors and public intellectuals who bring High-Ranked U. its global stature? They're preoccupied with producing research, the university's reward for greatness, and increasingly the university's measure of greatness.

It wouldn't be entirely fair to say that classroom teachers are second-class citizens at Canadian universities, since most high-end, research-oriented academics still have some contact with students in lecture halls and labs.

But there remains a worrying gap between image and reality as undergraduate education comes to rely more and more on instructors who are effectively temporary workers and interns. They have more education than a high school teacher, but generally are paid far less, and have zero job security.

How widespread is the problem? Remarkably little good data is available – research-obsessed universities, take note and feel shame – but here are a few relevant figures.

The Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations reported that the proportion of the province's professors who are permanent and full-time dropped from 75.7 per cent in 2002 to 66.9 per cent in 2013.

According to the Council of Ontario Universities, there was an 87-per-cent increase in semester-length courses taught by contract faculty between 2000 and 2012, while student enrolment increased 68 per cent. The consequence of greater postsecondary accessibility is a growing category of teachers who are hired at the last minute, paid a low wage (roughly $7,500 a course), lack both office space and job security, and can't take full part in the universities' vaunted mission.

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At Wilfrid Laurier University, says the Canadian Association of University Teachers, contract academics teach 45 per cent of courses. At York University, contract staff and teaching assistants handle 64 per cent of undergrad courses, according to the union, CUPE.

To university leaders, the systemic reliance on contract teachers is always proof that universities are underfunded. That's a dubious argument, as the use of sessionals has been growing for decades. Administrators also like the flexibility that comes with being able to hire cheap teachers at the last minute in response to fluctuating course numbers – a regular act of improvisation and agility that no one would confuse with the pursuit of excellence.

Students and parents who are going into debt to finance higher-education dreams should not be forced to accept this as the new normal, or abet a system that depends on an academic underclass living in the margins of the university.

Research-focused institutions are good at impressing outsiders and attracting funding specifically tied to non-classroom work – along with luring dutiful graduate students who can be counted on to act as low-cost TAs while serving a Victorian-era form of apprenticeship. But universities need to recognize their obligations to the fee-paying students who deserve to share in all that institutional lustre. A disproportionate amount of university spending is designed to keep the best professors out of the classroom – and since the highest-priced professors have the lightest course load, it's no wonder that teaching comes to be devalued throughout the system.

Great researchers aren't necessarily good teachers, it's often argued – which is why it may make sense to develop a parallel teaching-stream professoriat who aren't subject to the usual publish-or-perish strictures of research-oriented career advancement. University of Toronto, for all its success as a research-oriented university, has acknowledged the imperative of specialized teaching skills: As of 2012, it employed 506 teaching-stream faculty (compared with 2,242 in the more traditional "professorial" category).

It's hard to see how a program designed to create inspiring teachers could fail the young people it's meant to serve. And anything would be better than a regime that demeans both desperate contract workers hired on the cheap and the students who necessarily feel like they're being forced to settle for second-best.

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There are reasonable arguments about whether the teaching-stream solution perpetuates a two-tier hierarchy in university faculties and becomes a career-limiting move for PhDs dreaming of an academic success now measured by research output. Critics also talk about the "high-schoolization" of universities, as if a more intimate relationship between great professors and humble undergraduates somehow detracted from the seriousness of study.

But if the BA is going to have any higher value, then the classroom has to take greater priority: It's still the best place to humanize the arid abstractions of learning and challenge the limits of introspection. Sessional lecturers and teaching assistants have a role to play in this animated give-and-take, but professors must be at the core of this common educational goal. They might even learn something new from submitting their best ideas to the scrutiny of the young.

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