Academic Tenure Is Hurting Canada’s Universities and Costing a Fortune

Commentary, Education, Jack Buckby

Once a powerful tool for aiding new research, academic tenure has become a costly burden and a bottleneck for universities trying to keep up with a rapidly-changing educational environment.

An overwhelming body of evidence suggests that tenure has become an outdated, ineffective practice that serves only to line the pockets of those who benefit from it. The billions spent on Canada’s 148 public universities are being eaten up by a bloated, bureaucratic and self-serving administrative system.

It is also the case that Canadian universities do not face a shortage of talented academics, a problem tenure was originally intended to solve. While university administrators and professors are taking in huge salaries each year, sessional professors who find themselves working increasingly hard get paid significantly less. The University of Alberta’s Compensation Disclosure List reveals more than 50 members of staff earning $300,000 per year or more. Presidents of the province’s universities received more than $3 M in 2015 alone, making administrators in Alberta among the best paid in Canada

In contrast, some contract academics earned around $70,000, and lecturers teaching as many as five courses at a time might receive less than $38,000 with no benefits. 

In 2018, sessional lecturers and research fellows at the Memorial University of Newfoundland voted to strike over their “disgusting” pay and work conditions. Sessional lecturers without permanent contracts were teaching 40 percent of students while taking home as little as $30,000 per year.  

While tenured professors take home hundreds of thousands of dollars for meeting the minimum standard of simply not engaging in conduct that is considered gross negligence, promising lecturers are left unrewarded. If the tenure system is designed, at least in part, to ensure students get the best out of their time spent in education, something clearly isn’t working. 

Students cannot possibly receive the best education when tenured professors have no incentive to deliver academic excellence, and while sessional lecturers teaching 40% of students or more are struggling just to get by.  

Lecturers only settle for these small salaries in the first place because the circumstances allow universities to get away with it. Academics are no longer in short supply. While tenured professors are unaffected by competition in the industry, new lecturers and PhDs find themselves in a race to the bottom.

Some 6,000 PhDs graduate every year, and just 20% of those go on to become tenured university professors. With so much new talent looking to rise to the top, academic tenure is no longer required to encourage professors to stay in their post. 

For the most part, with some exceptions, the days of universities fighting over academics are long gone. Access to education has created a more competitive academic environment, with younger PhDs exploring new realms of study without tenure. When universities are unable to make full use of this talent, thanks to a bloated portfolio of tenured professors, innovation is stifled. Resident professors might have the freedom to research whatever they please, but universities miss out on the dynamism of new scientists and researchers.  

Ending tenure will vastly improve the prospects of public research universities and even save the taxpayer money. 

Canada’s public universities spent $27.5 B in 2016/2017, with provincial governments providing the largest contribution to their revenue. Federal government funding amounted to $2.9 B, while provincial governments provided $10.8 B. 

Out of this funding, salaries, benefits, and wages made up the largest share of expenditure. In the same year, universities spent $16.5 B on salaries, an increase of $246 M from the year previous. 

Canada’s universities are not short on cash, and every year new professors are offered potentially decades of guaranteed income and a huge payout upon retirement. The case of former University of Alberta president Indira Samarasekera highlights a problem that has long existed, long caused controversy, and not yet been resolved. In 2007/2008, tenured Samarasekera took home salary and benefits of $627,000. Then, upon leaving office, she received a further pay out of $578,315. 

Tenure is a big money business, particularly in Alberta. 

The evidence shows that tenure no longer serves its purpose of encouraging academic innovation and is no longer required to attract great talent. Canadian universities are failing to utilize the talent of new PhDs, underpaying hard-working lecturers, and overpaying administrators. Tenure is outdated, expensive, and hampering the progress of Canada’s universities.