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CHA Report on Precarity


A Report by Steven High, Vice-President, Canadian Historical Association – 1 May 2021


Is it Time to Restore the “Canadians First” Hiring Guidelines for Canadian Universities? (February 9th, 2022)

By Steven High, Professor of History, Concordia University, and President of the Canadian Historical Association

The humanities and social sciences are in a prolonged crisis. Canadian universities are pumping out outstanding graduates from PhD programs for permanent jobs that simply don’t exist. The single major factor is the growing proportion of undergraduate teaching that is being done by precariously employed part-time or occasional instructors. Few permanent jobs are being advertised as a result. That said, it doesn’t help that a growing number of those hired are foreign nationals who were not trained in Canada. There is an unfortunate tendency in the academy to equate excellence with what school you a candidate attended, placing Canadian graduates at a distinct disadvantage in the reputational marketplace. It is not unheard of to have all non-Canadian shortlists in job competitions with over one-hundred applicants.

The sense of anger, even betrayal, is palpable among highly qualified recent graduates and precarious instructors.

To understand the deteriorating situation better, the Canadian Historical Association (CHA), which represents professional historians across the country, organized a series of virtual round-table last year which resulted in a major report and a set of recommendations. Our Committee on Precarity has since developed best-practice resources and guidelines for History Department Chairs to mitigate what we can. We also established a seven-member Task Force on the Future of the PhD in Canada to better understand the structural problems. It will be reporting this spring at our centenary conference. I was also directed to investigate the specific issue of hiring policies.

Controversy over the under-representation of Canadians in our universities is nothing new. In the 1960s, those concerns centred on the informal old boy’s network that saw Americans hired without advertising the position. According to one estimate, the proportion of Canadian faculty at 15 surveyed universities declined from 75% in 1961 to 49% in 1968.  Once established in Canadian universities, “foreign academics tended to hire individuals who were much like themselves in terms of training, outlook, approach.” The controversy led to the establishment of the Commission on Canadian Studies, chaired by T.H.B. Symons, and eventually to the “Canadians First” policy in academic hiring in 1981.

Between 1981 and 2001, Canadian universities were required to conduct a Canadian search first before opening it up to non-citizens/permanent residents if no qualified candidate was found. Naturally, there were always exemptions for those disciplines such as biotechnology, electro-engineering and computer science where there was a demonstrated shortage of Canadian talent or when the university was able to attract an academic superstar.

Not surprisingly, many university administrators never liked the policy, seeing it as an obstacle to achieving top international standards. There is some truth to this. And it wasn’t just administrators who opposed the regulations. Academics are more likely to see themselves as global citizens and believe, to varying degrees, that knowledge knows no borders. Who would not want to work with or learn from the best?

But “excellence” is a slippery fish.

After all, university rankings are grounded in reputational surveys and include such indicators of greatness as the number of Ivy League-trained professors on the payroll. Canadian universities with global pretensions like to trumpet these associations.

This two-tier policy, first adopted by the Liberals under Pierre Trudeau, survived the Brian Mulroney years and the free trade agreement only to die under the Jean Chretien Liberals.

The 2001 policy change, which followed the blanket exemption for the new Canada Research Chair programme the year before, was prompted by doomsday predictions about the coming shortage of qualified candidates given the expected increased university enrollment with the baby boom “echo”. In 2000, the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada issued a report entitled “Revitalizing Universities through Faculty Renewal” that warned of a serious labour shortage, predicting they would need to hire up to 32,000 new professors by 2010. Canadian universities were expected to only graduate half that number.

In response, the federal government relaxed the policy, allowing universities to advertise domestically and internationally at the same time. But with the promise that qualified Canadians would still be first hired. The “Canadians first” policy thus remains in place today at least in theory.

After getting the green light, Canadian universities used the federal government’s Temporary Foreign Workers Program as its primary vehicle for hiring permanent employees outside of the country. The early 2000s saw the “rapid influx” of temporary foreign workers into Canada more generally. The programme, however, is supposed to be limited to sectors where there is a demonstrated labour shortage and that is the rub.

The argument that there is a labour shortage in Canada within the humanities and social sciences is simply untenable.

It is strange to read old predictions of the coming labour shortage, as things did not work out that way. It was all a mirage of course. The modest opening up of the academic job market for historians, at least, only lasted two or three years. I was lucky to be hired during this small window.

The resulting inequities are striking. The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) raised this issue back in 2015 when it charged that universities were abusing the Temporary Foreign Workers Programme. According to CAUT President David Robinson, “The reality is there are scores of qualified Canadian academics who are employed on temporary and part-time contracts who should be considered for full-time openings.”

At present, Canadian law requires that all faculty job ads include the following wording “All qualified candidates are encouraged to apply; however, Canadians and permanent residents will be given priority.” In practice, however, what does it mean to be “qualified”? Does it include anyone who is a strong candidate, actively publishing and effectively teaching, or does it signify the best candidate available in the international pool of applicants? Nor is there any more clarity in what is meant by giving Canadians’ “priority.”

To better understand the prevailing situation, I analysed eight university hiring policies freely available online to see what formal direction our universities are giving faculty hiring committees. All repeat the government’s vague wording that qualified Canadians and permanent residents would continue to be given first priority. Otherwise, current practice appears to vary considerably from one university to another.

The University of Calgary, for example, seems to have the most restrictive reading of the law: “All Canadian citizens and permanent residents who meet the advertised requirements of the position are to be invited to participate in the selection process, i.e. interviews, presentations, etc. Canadian citizens and permanent residents who are found qualified are to be offered the position before it can be offered to a foreign candidate.” For its part, the University of Toronto asks hiring committees to “keep a record of all attempts through written or personal communication or other means that you have made to find qualified Canadian or permanent residents to fill the position.” Most universities, however, seem to follow the lead of the University of Alberta, which insists that Canadian citizenship or permanent residency matters only when two candidates are “equally qualified based on the advertised criteria.” This wording effectively enshrines a straightforward international job search, albeit one that requires the subsequent denigration of Canadian candidates to justify the final choice. Universities Canada, the voice of upper university administrators in the country strongly supports this global labour market vision.

Because there is little government oversight, universities can pretty much do as they please.

Another key factor to consider is the overdue prioritization of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion criteria in hiring. History, as a discipline, has been one of the whitest in the humanities and social sciences. This urgently needs to change. Accordingly, any restoration of the “Canadians first” policy must not be a barrier to these efforts. One way to advance our EDI goals, while supporting our own graduates, is to recognize Canadian-trained international students amongst the priority job pool.

I believe it is time to restore the two-tier policy as there is no shortage of well qualified, indeed excellent, candidates already in Canada. To say there are no qualified Canadians or permanent residents for these positions is a lie, and not even a subtle one at that. Our PhD graduates deserve more than precarious part-time or occasional work.