The return of ‘voluntary’ retirement

The academic labour market never gets any breathing room

It wasn’t that long ago when the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada was predicting that we would need tens of thousands of extra PhD graduates. It was reasoned that growing demand for university combined with a mass exodus of baby boomer professors, would create a glut in the academic labour market. The message to government was fund more grad school spaces. The message to students was, forget about all that negative talk of spending five years in a doctorate program only to wind up in temporary sessional appointments. Now is the time to get that PhD.

It is not very novel to point out that, in light of the past year-and-a-half, this scenario seems like a sad joke. Students are indeed piling into grad programs, but largely as a relief from a brutal job market. As financial trouble appears to be dialing down in other sectors, problems continue unabated in the higher education sector. Universities have been making changes in response to economic realities that will ensure that a tight academic labour market will remain the norm long after the overall job market recovers.

As one illustration, the Modern Language Association recently reported that there has been a 51 per cent decline in available English positions over the past two years.

Many institutions have said that they will leave open positions unfilled, which can be accomplished by relying on sessional instructors and eliminating small classes, while they wait to see what their respective provincial governments do with respect to funding.

Some universities are picking fights with faculty unions. And unions are having none of it. At Queen’s, the administration requested that faculty take a two per cent pay cut, which was rejected by a vote of 89 per cent earlier this month. Last week, the Lakehead Faculty Association protested administration imposed furlough days, stating in a release: “Employees should not be made to suffer because administrators are unable to manage university finances.”

Unfortunately, this unwillingness to make concessions may lead to even more drastic measures. Forget pay cuts and furlough days, the days of “voluntary” retirement have already returned. Only a couple of weeks after the faculty union at the University of Alberta agreed to discuss the possibility of unpaid days off, the administration announced that it will be offering voluntary retirement packages,  the Edmonton Journal reported on boxing day. The U of A has not ruled out outright layoffs, as have happened at other schools.

For example, the British Columbia Institute of Technology has announced that it will layoff five per cent of its staff in the coming year. Layoffs have been announced at the University of Calgary, and Guelph to name a couple others. We should expect much more carnage in the spring as universities finalize their 2010-2011 budgets. While it is easy to blame the economy, or the government, universities while crying cash poor over the past decade have, apparently, not taken many steps to prepare for downturns.

Though voluntary retirement may seem more humane than outright layoffs, it signals much deeper financial troubles than a simple trimming of the labour budget. Begging people to give up their jobs is never a good sign.

The voluntary retirement package was a common theme of the 1990s that, combined with leaving positions unfilled, led to a 10 per cent reduction in the total number of faculty across the country. It took years for the academic labour market to recover. The hiring spree across campuses during the early and mid 2000s was largely a move to reinstate positions lost during this period. The AUCC thought that this trend would continue well into the next decade. That’s just not going to happen.

This is compounded by the fact that, when given the choice, baby boomers simply won’t retire at the rate we have expected them to. It hardly bears mentioning that one of the great ironies of the recession is that while it has encouraged students to recede into PhD programs, it has also ensured that they might not have anywhere to go when they finish.