In Brief: The National Post turned to AIMS Senior Fellow in Post-Secondary Education, Kelvin Ogilvie, as it examined the strike at York University. He said universities need to return to their core missions. Ogilvie added that some tenured professors have a higher sense of their own importance and too often find things beneath their esteemed evolutionary status.

The bitter strike at Toronto’s York University might seem retrograde, an old-school battle that pits bean-counters against professors demanding a recession-time raise. But experts say this closure, now in its 11th week, might mark the beginning of a larger trend, one that could push campuses to the brink. Next month, for example, a union of part- and full-time professors will also be gunning for better wages and benefits at Waterloo’s Wilfrid Laurier University.

Ontario isn’t alone in this predicament. Hoping to save money at every turn, administrators in Canada and the U.S. have hired droves of teachers on the cheap — “permatemp” profs — either to lecture, grade papers, or oversee student conferences. Sometimes likened to Wal-Mart workers, these PhDs, part-time lecturers, and teaching assistants often perform tasks that tenured professors do not — or will not. But in recent years, the tension around this underclass is coming to a boil.

“It will particularly do so with the rapid expansion of public employee unions, and you can see a lot more of this not just in Canada, but in the U.S. as well,” said Hank Brown, the former president of the University of Colorado system and also a former U.S. senator. “These professors are asking for a bigger piece of the pie.”

The growing strife speaks to the troubled evolution of public universities, which have been slouching toward an existential crisis since the 1980s. Like unwieldy conglomerates, they have overextended, taking on broad mandates at the expense of their core identity.

Yet they remain crucial to Canada’s economic future.

Politicians of all stripes reflexively depict them as the bedrock of the “knowledge economy,” the only way in which the country will be able to compete globally.

Unprecedented numbers of Canadians have been putting their faith (and borrowed money) into the system. According to Human Resources and Social Development Canada, participation in university education reached an all-time high in 2005-2006, rising to 24% of the population aged 18 to 24. The level of full-time enrolment increased between 2001 and 2005 by 25%.

Despite the enthusiasm to sign up, these students might wind up feeling less than sentimental about their education, which might be attributable to the growing permatemp workforce.

A much-discussed study by University of Washington professor Dan Jacoby, published three years ago in the Journal of Higher Education, concludes that higher numbers of part-time faculty lead to lower graduation rates.

“This should not be taken to mean that part-time faculty offer less quality,” he told a state senate hearing, “but it would be absurd to believe that working under the deplorable conditions they work under does not have an impact on the system.”

From the 1980s onward, various governments cut back on their funding, putting tremendous pressure on administrators to scale costs while enrolment and student-faculty ratios escalated.

Between 1998 and 2006, the number of Canadian faculty grew by 21% from 33,700 to 40,800, according to the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada. (There are no hard numbers available in Canada that reflect the proportion of “permatemp” professors.)

But, also between 1998 and 2006, full-time enrolment grew by 37%, and the AUCC predicts that during the next decade, the mass retirement of Boomer-generation professors will require universities to replace an additional 21,000 faculty members.

This mass hiring will be a daunting task, one which tuitions alone can no longer subsidize. “The model where research is funded by undergraduate enrolment is beginning to collapse under the stress,” said Jeff Ryback, the author of What’s Wrong with University?

In the hopes of taking the pressure off their budgets, cash-strapped administrators redistribute the labour, he said. They don’t give the work to the professor who is nominally paid to research half of the time. Instead, they pile it on the other professor who is not paid to research. “It’s an obvious way to stretch the dollar,” he said.

Research costs can represent a major portion of a faculty’s budget, experts say. While publishing is undeniably crucial, administrators complain that it can be a nebulous mandate whose massive costs are almost impossible to account for. Originally intended to give scholars a platform to express themselves without fear of political or institutional interference, the role of the research-oriented professor is increasingly endangered, a luxury few public institutions can afford any longer. It becomes even more difficult to justify with so many more students to teach, indulge and nurture.

Kelvin Ogilvie, the former president of Acadia University in Nova Scotia, said that schools should return to their core missions, whether that be research or teaching. This would alleviate redundancies among institutions, and allow professors to concentrate on their strengths, whether they be in the solitude of the field, or in the class.

Many tenured professors, he added, can be national assets, but others might abuse their situation, particularly in popular fields such as social sciences and humanities.

“It’s my experience as a career academic that tenured professors in that area have a higher sense of their own importance,” said Mr. Ogilvie, who is affiliated with the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies in Halifax. “Too often they easily find things to be beneath their esteemed evolutionary status.”

Jim Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, said the real problem, however, is that universities are not filling the jobs of retiring Baby Boomers.

“They’re using the money to create part-time positions. It’s the same strategy used by Wal-mart and the Hudson’s Bay Company,” he said.

In a city like Toronto, this might mean cobbling together a course load at different schools that might earn them $40,000 a year. Part-timers or contract employees work twice the hours of their full-time counterparts, and because they are not full-time, they have a more difficult time raising money for research projects, which would help lift them out of their grind.

“Five years later, an opening for a full-time tenure track job comes up, and the dean says, where are your articles? You’re five years out of your PhD and you should have eight publications. It becomes a bit of job ghetto.”

Precarious as this existence is, critics say that these professors took risks spending all their time and money becoming academics, which can be a fiercely competitive market, especially during a downturn. Rather than holding universities hostage, institutions to which they have little loyalty, they should take a hint and pursue another profession.

Arguably, this is what one noted lecturer did. He ditched his part-time job at the venerable University of Chicago Law School to pursue other interests. And look what happened to him.

He became President of the United States.

National Post