Issues on the Table: Sessional Lecturer vs. Term Appointee – What’s the Difference?

Short-term Academic Staff

Our Collective Agreement (CA) includes provisions for two categories of short-term appointments: Sessional Lecturers, and members with Term appointments. A Sessional Lecturer is hired on a per-course basis, and paid with a stipend. Their working conditions are poor, and their benefits are minimal (this is explained further in our blog on an Improved Right of First Refusal for Sessionals). A Term member can be an Instructor, Faculty Member, or Professional Librarian, at any rank, but they are hired for an explicitly limited period. They may be full-time or part-time, and their benefits depend to some extent on how close to full-time they are. When they are full-time, their working conditions and benefits are reasonably close to those of members who have been hired into continuing or tenure-track positions.

Academic staff unions have an obvious interest in ensuring that, to the greatest possible extent, their members are employed in secure positions with reasonable working conditions. At many universities, this is accomplished via collective agreement clauses that limit the proportion of courses that can be taught by contract or short-term staff. At the University of Lethbridge, our CA contains lists of specific circumstances under which people can be hired for either Term or Sessional positions. The lists are essentially the same, but to distinguish between these two categories, historically there has been a stipulation that Sessional Lecturers could only teach one course per semester.

The Problem

In the previous round of negotiations, as part of the negotiation around introducing a Right of First Refusal for Sessional Lecturers, ULFA agreed to the Board’s proposal to introduce more flexibility into these positions by allowing Sessional Lecturers to teach up to three courses per year, no longer necessarily limited to one per semester. 

Now that Sessional Lecturers can teach three courses in one semester, many contract academic staff are being hired into these particularly poorly-paid and precarious positions for one semester, and then given Term contracts for the next semester. Our CA does not clearly distinguish between these categories of employment; Although the phrasings are somewhat different, our current CA says either category can be used:

  • To replace an ongoing member for a limited period (eg. during a leave);
  • To cover duties that will only be needed for a limited time;
  • As a stop-gap measure until a permanent staff member can be hired;
  • To provide program flexibility on a short-term basis.

In addition, Sessional Lecturer positions can be used:

  •  to allow people with relevant professional or cultural knowledge to teach occasional courses “on the side”, or 
  • to teach a limited number of specialised courses that aren’t enough to warrant a full-time hire on an ongoing basis. 

The Positions

In an attempt to clarify the distinctions between Term and Sessional Lecturer appointments, ULFA proposed changes to the lists of rationales for the two types of appointments. Specifically, ULFA proposed that all of the rationales that currently appear under both lists should require the appointment of a Term position. A Sessional should only be hired under the conditions listed above for sessional appointments, or: 

  • if an unexpected enrolment increase in a specific course requires an unexpected short-term appointment, or 
  • to provide limited-time teaching experience for post-docs, graduate students, or research associates.

The Board also entered this round of negotiations with concerns about the confusion that has arisen around which type of contract may be offered under which circumstances. Their opening proposal to address this was to merge the two job categories, removing most working condition language and benefits from members with term appointments. 

Each side has rejected the other’s proposal. The Board’s proposal has been withdrawn, and their new position is to maintain the status quo. Their only stated objection to ULFA’s position was the concern that there might not always be sufficient teaching openings within a discipline to hire a Term appointee rather than a Sessional Lecturer. Since Term appointees do not have to be hired on a full-time basis, this objection seems weak.

These proposals appear in Articles 18 (Appointments) and 34 (Sessional Lecturers). Both of these articles were presented at the negotiation table by the Board on March 22, 2021 and by ULFA on April 8, 2021, and then again on February 4, 2022