How Universities Have Promoted the Unemployment Crisis

Some examples of how universities have promoted an unemployment crisis are already well known.  The faculties of education in Ontario producing thousands more  teachers than the school system can absorb is an egregious example.  Universities are also responsible for the glut of PhDs on the market because universities have a vertical monopoly, being both the exclusive producers and major employers of PhDs.  It is hard to argue that the universities have handled their monopoly in a more enlightened fashion than the robber barons of the past.

It is worth stopping to consider what it takes to get a PhD.  Steps one and two are a four-year BA and a two-year MA in order to apply for admission to a PhD.  Universities have lots of strategies on the books to shorten or even eliminate the MA, but most students go through the MA process and take longer than the two years suggested in university calendars--six years is a conservative estimate of how long you need to study just to apply to a PhD program.  Once you have been accepted into a PhD program, there is a better than 50% possibility that you won’t finish. If you do finish, the average length of time the PhD takes is seven years, the mode (the number which occurs most frequently) is ten years.  If you are part of that happy minority that actually finishes the PhD, there is a better than 50% chance that you won’t get the tenure-track university teaching position which was your original purpose in starting the PhD in the first place.  If you are part of that lucky minority that finished the degree and got a tenure-track position, chances are you are in your late thirties.  The people you went to high school with have been working for twenty years by the time you have nailed down your first permanent, full-time job.  If you happened to have gone to school with Steve Jobs and Bill Gates (who both dropped out as undergrads), you will probably have noticed that the time it took you to do your PhD was about as long as it took them to develop Apple and Microsoft respectively.

Who would choose to do graduate studies under these conditions?  Well . . . someone like me, slightly idealistic, overly optimistic and drawn to the intellectual environment  of the university, in part because it was secure and comfortable.  The university offered the comforting illusion that I was heading somewhere and improving myself.  In keeping with the boy scout (and girl guide) motto, I was getting prepared, even though I didn’t know for what.  The hardcore facts were that I wasn’t turning down any solid job offers in order to continue studying.  I viewed language teaching as a stop-gap measure.  It took me ten years to accept that teaching was my profession.  My alternative to a PhD was working as a waiter in LA while I tried to flog film scripts.  Studying was my only percentage option even if it  might turn out to be no more than a hobby while I earned a living as a language teacher.  And if you are really lucky--as I was--it’s hard to imagine a better job than teaching in a university.

I tried to be upfront with my own graduate students about the prospects, but I kept hearing and I keep hearing that demographics will solve the problem soon.  Nonetheless, let’s consider a few stats.  According to the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) Almanac  there were 41,934 University Teachers in Canada in 2010.  Let’s imagine the number is 50,000 now.  In 2011, Canadian universities gave out  5,736 PhDs.  Let’s round that number down to 5,000 to simplify the math.  If we produce 5000 PhDs every year, within 10 years we will have produced enough new candidates to fill all of the 50,000 university teaching positions which now exist.  The idea that the entire university teaching core would replace itself every 10 years isn’t part of anyone’s rosiest daydreams.  It’s not happening, and it’s not going to happen.  Of course, the problem would be solved (in Canada) if the number of university teaching positions increased every year by 10%.  We know that hasn’t happened and isn’t going to happen either.   So what is happening?

University professors, who could, aren’t retiring.  According to the CAUT Almanac:    “As mandatory retirement laws have been rescinded in a number of provinces in recent years, the proportion of full-time university teachers in Canada, employed as teachers beyond the common retirement age of 65, more than quadrupled between 2001 and 2011.”  A few weeks ago there was a PBS documentary on exactly this subject:  university professors refusing to retire. The theme which ran through various professors’ explanations of why they were staying on was that occupying their university positions made them feel good.  The purpose of a university is not to make university professors feel better about themselves, and it is astounding that it should be necessary to say so.

However, the number of positions occupied by professors over 65 is probably a drop in the bucket.  According to a Services Canada report on future employment as a university teacher in the province of Quebec “the number of university professors is forecasted to rise slightly over the next few years.”  Three causes of this increase, according to the report,  (which all sound questionable to me) are:  the expansion of universities, professors' leaving to pursue other careers, and retirements.  According to the report:
 “Openings will arise first from the need to replace university professors, a relatively large number of whom will be retiring. In fact, the average age of these professors is considerably higher than in the work force as a whole. The proportion of university professors aged 55 and over in 2006 was much higher than that of all occupations (32% compared with 15%, according to census data)." 
This is a claim that I have repeated to my graduate students over the years.  However, as I read this report which is based on information from MELS (the French-language acronym for the Quebec ministry of education, recreation--"loisir" in French--and sport) which in turn comes from Quebec universities themselves, I am struck by how a fairly negative situation (from the point of view of Canadian /Quebec job seekers to whom the report is addressed) is given a hyperbolically positive spin.
For example, the report claims:  “This occupation [university professor] posts serious shortages in certain disciplines, including engineering, computer science and medicine.” “Including” is the tricky word in this sentence.  In common discourse what usually follows the word “including” is either a fairly comprehensive list or, in the other direction, some surprising inclusion.  We all know that engineers, computer scientists and doctors are in demand.  The sentence (and the report as a whole) encourages us to believe  that “university professor” is an in-demand category of profession in all areas and that there is a huge shortage of Canadian PhDs.  The report avoids any mention of the “certain disciplines” where there are no shortages and, in fact, there is an over supply. 
Rather than addressing the issue of over-supply, the report focusses on the causes of the shortage of university professors:  “competition from universities in the United States [and . . . ] competition from the rest of the labour market, which often pays these highly qualified professionals better.”  Anyone who holds a PhD and has been unable to get a tenure-track university teaching position will interpret the basic facts of the report in direct opposition to the report’s tenor and conclusions.
For example, the report notes that “only 37% of employed PhDs were working in universities in 2006.”  The report’s interpretation of this fact is, as we have seen, that PhDs are being lured to the USA and/or the private sector.  The interpretation for those people holding a PhD in the Humanities and Social Sciences (the area which accounts for more than two thirds of all university students and graduates) is that there are no university positions available in their fields and they have been forced to look elsewhere to earn a living.
Continuing on the theme that there is a shortage of PhDs in Quebec, the report announces the good news that “the doctoral student body jumped by close to 60% between 2000-2001 and 2009-2010. This labour pool is expected to increase 3,1% [3.1%] per year during our forecast period (2012-2016), according to Quebec Department of Education, Recreation and Sport's [sic] (MELS).”  Once again, if you happen to hold a PhD right now and are looking for work, this “good news” is really bad news for you because the supply of PhDs has increased in recent years and is going to keep increasing in the years ahead.  
This report which is supposed to be informing Canadians looking for work on their job prospects continues to emphasis the shortage of qualified candidates by noting that “30% of university professors in 2006 had received their degrees abroad” and that “in 2006, the percentage of immigrants in this occupation was three times higher than in all occupations (33% compared with 12%).”  There is nothing untoward in this information, except if you happen to be a Canadian with a PhD from a Canadian university unable to get a job.
While I am on this theme, the report on “Imbalances Between Labour Demand and Supply - 2011-2020”  published online by Employment and Social Development Canada offers these project shortages and surpluses  (among many others):

Shortages are projected over the next 10 years in some high-skilled occupations
  • Skill Types
  • Business, Finance and Administration Occupations
  • Occupations in Shortage
  • Human Resources and Business Service Professionals (NOC 112), Administrative and Regulatory Occupations (NOC 122)
  • Skill Types
  • Natural and Applied Sciences and Related Occupations
  • Occupations in Shortage
  • Other Engineers (NOC 214), Architects, Urban Planners and Land Surveyors (NOC 215), Mathematicians, Statisticians and Actuaries (NOC 216)
  • Skill Types
  • Health Occupations
  • Occupations in Shortage
  • Managers in Health, Education, Social and Community Services (NOC 031), Physicians, Dentists and Veterinarians (NOC 311), Optometrists, Chiropractors and Other Health Diagnosing and Treating Professionals (312), Therapy and Assessment Professionals (NOC 314), Nurse Supervisors and Registered Nurses (NOC 315), Medical Technologists and Technicians (NOC 321), Assisting Occupations in Support of Health Services (NOC 341)
  • Skill Types
  • Occupations in Social Science, Education, Government Service and Religion
  • Occupations in Shortage
  • Managers in Health, Education, Social and Community Services (NOC 041), Judges, Lawyers and Quebec Notaries (NOC 411), College and Other vocational Instructors (NOC 413), Policy and Program Officers, Researchers and Consultants (NOC 416)

Surpluses over the next 10 years are projected in low-skilled occupations, manufacturing and in trades and transportation
  • Skill Types
  • Business, Finance and Administration Occupations
  • Occupations in Excess Supply
  • Managers in Communication (NOC 013), Secretaries, Recorders and Transcriptionists (NOC 124), Clerical Occupations, General Office Skills (NOC 141), Office Equipment Operators (NOC 142), Library, Correspondence and Related Information Clerks (NOC 145), Recording, Scheduling and Distributing Occupations (NOC 147)
  • Skill Types
  • Natural and Applied Sciences and Related Occupations
  • Occupations in Excess Supply
  • Computer and Information Systems Professionals (NOC 217), Technical Occupations in Physical Sciences (NOC 221)
  • Skill Types
  • Occupations in Art, Culture, Recreation and Sport
  • Occupations in Excess Supply
  • Managers in Art, Culture, Recreation and Sport (NOC 051), Technical Occupations in Libraries, Archives, Museums and Arts Galleries (NOC 521), Athletes, Coaches, Referees and Related Occupations (NOC 525)

Take note of what you will from these predictions but I noticed the need for college and vocational teachers--yes--but university professors--no!  Did you notice in the Job Futures report that Quebec will need more professors of computer science?  Did you also notice the prediction (above) that we on the verge of an over supply of “Computer and Information Systems Professionals”?
How have universities promoted the unemployment crisis?  Thus far, the summary answer to the question is:  1) little effort is being made to tie university programs to the employment market (more on this question in a future posting), 2) universities are simply not being straightforward with students on what the employment possibilities are for the degrees they are pursuing, 3) universities are knowingly producing more PhDs (and other degrees) in certain fields than the employment market can absorb, 4) professors are no longer being required or encouraged to retire, 5) Canadian universities are not hiring the PhDs that they themselves produce.

All of this is a partial, fragmentary answer to the question but the global answer is that universities have been increasing compelled and have, with varying degrees of willingness, embraced a vision of themselves as independent businesses.  The basic business model is that you make a profit by keeping your labour costs low.  Like the robber barons of the past, universities have taken advantage of their monopoly on PhD production in order to create a surplus of labour and a shortage of tenure-track university  teaching positions.  The result is a cheap labour force of part-time, occasional and sessional lecturers and adjunct faculty which does most of the actual university teaching in Quebec, in Canada and in North America.  The upshot works on the balance sheet but it doesn’t work where it really matters, in the lives of PhD graduates who merit tenure-track university teaching positions, and it doesn't work for students who deserve access to professors fully committed to teaching in their fields.  


  1. This Chronicle of Higher Education blog does an excellent job of succinctly making the point that university hiring practices over the last four decades have been to dramatically increase employment in every category except in the hiring of tenure-track professors:

  2. When I posted the Chronicle of Higher Education statistics and article, I go t this response from a colleague who works in the administration/research sector of a large Quebec university:
    "These are interesting stats, but they don't mention one of the big reasons for the rise in professional/admin staff at universities -- to help administer the grants that profs now are pretty well obliged to apply for. I would like to see how many profs, especially those outside of the science faculties, had even a single grant back in 1976."

    In response I was going to point my own shock as a university professor that I was expected to conduct myself as if I was running a small business; managing budgets and employment contracts, not to mention chasing after funding in the first place. My colleague followed up with the same observation:

    "I'm struck (and saddened) by how many profs are basically turned (forced) into being entrepreneurs writing business plans (aka grant proposals) and managing staff (students and support people carrying out many of the grant activities). From the outside, it looks to me that many profs have relatively little time to actually sit and read and think and write, which I assume, possibly wrongly, used to be the main non-teaching activities of arts and humanities profs back in the day."

    I couldn't agree more. I might add that young professors and even PhD candidates are routinely told that it is impossible to get tenure without getting a research grant first. This is an outright lie. In any given year less than 30% of applicants get grants, but obviously a far greater percentage of profs get tenure. Also, in the other direction, profs who have gotten grants have been denied tenure.


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