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Canadian profs have never been older. Are B.C. schools ready for a retirement wave?

Almost 30 per cent of full-time university teachers are between 55 and 64 years old, according to new Statistics Canada data.

Full-time academic teaching staff at Canadian universities has never been older.

A Statistics Canada report released in January said the median age for full-time teachers at post-secondary institutions has increased by 13 years over the previous five decades, from 38 years old in the early 1970s to 51 in 2021/2022. 

What’s that mean?

In the near future, a wave of retirements.

In the present, concerns about promotion of younger staff and the need for universities to torque up their recruitment drives to compete with the private sector, which can be and has been a more lucrative option for academics.

Why almost 30 per cent of full-time teaching staff in Canadian universities were between 55 and 64 years old in the 2021/2022 academic year has some logical reasons: the end of mandatory retirement and aging baby boomers not ready to leave their posts.

The findings are not unique to universities, with data from the 2021 Census of Population showing the working-age population across Canada — persons aged 15 to 64 years — has never been older. 

In May 2021, more than one in five (21.8 per cent) persons of working age were between 55 and 64, nearing the age normally associated with retirement, according to Statistics Canada data. 

Thompson Rivers University

Intimately familiar with the shift in the age distribution of academic staff in B.C. and in Ontario is Gillian Balfour, the Provost and Vice-President Academic of Thompson Rivers University (TRU) in Kamloops.

Balfour took the position at TRU last summer after serving as vice-president and academic dean at King’s University College at Western University in London, Ont., a position she held since 2020.

“Do I imagine a problem recruiting in the next decade or so in light of some of these numbers?” Balfour said in response to Glacier Media’s question. “I would say we're already there.”

Her explanation identified some of the factors reported in the Statistics Canada data — no mandatory retirement, aging baby boomers — but she referred to past events that helped set the course for the current state of faculty.

“I'd say starting in the mid to late 2000s, is when there were such drastic cuts to university budgets and funding for doctoral students that [we saw] very small cohorts of doctoral students coming through the system,” Balfour said.

“So the market need for academics didn't match the funding for academics themselves, and many PhDs moved into industry.”

That fact has presented a challenge for universities such as TRU, which is also competing with bigger universities for academic staff. Balfour identified the sciences as an area the university is finding difficult to recruit teachers.

“Our salaries and benefits packages are very good relative to the rest of the market, but we can't offer what some of the big schools can,” she said of TRU, which received university status in 2006.

“TRU is emerging as a research-intensive institution, but we’re sort of a new kid on the block with regards to competing with some of the other schools like UVic or Simon Fraser, or UBC.”

10-year commitment to hire 200 staff

Balfour said the university has a made a 10-year commitment to recruit 200 new research faculty. She added that 200 doesn’t seem like a high number, but it’s a significant investment for the university.

What TRU has going for it that bigger Lower Mainland universities and industry doesn’t is less expensive housing and a location attractive to people who enjoy the outdoors and recreational activities such as hiking and fishing.

Asked to give her “elevator pitch” to recruit a potential faculty member, Balfour said: “Well, you get to be in the middle of a pretty beautiful part of British Columbia. Unlike a lot of other universities, we also have a really unique relationship with the local Indigenous community. We go from trades all the way through to law school to graduate programs to a school of nursing. Everything's here.”

At the University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC) in Prince George, Wendy Rodgers picked up on some of Balfour’s points about the current state of faculty, also referring to the past to explain reasons for an older academic teaching staff.

It would be an interesting comparison, Rodgers said, to see how many individuals in the 1970s had a master’s degree versus a PhD degree. Her educated guess is there is probably a higher proportion of PhDs now than in the '70s.

“Which means that those people spent longer in school,” said Rodgers, who is UNBC's Provost and Vice-President Academic, a post she accepted last summer after leaving the University of Alberta, where she was deputy provost.

Post-doctoral training has also expanded from science, technology, engineering and medicine to social sciences, humanities and other areas, she said, noting such training adds time to a person’s career goal to land a faculty position.

“So we probably increase the age at which people enter their career,” she said. “And because of all that training, you also have groups of people that by the time they're 40, or 45 years old, they will have had quite low career earnings compared to others in the private sector, and so they will work longer.”

The salaries at UNBC for a full professor range from a minimum of $82,300 per year to $187,600, with the average at $140,700. The range is $90,700 to $179,500 for an associate professor and $55,700 to $158,900 for an assistant professor.

Germany, Scandinavia

On the topic of losing highly trained people to industry, Rodgers pointed to Germany and some of the Scandinavian countries as examples of how both the private sector and universities could benefit from talent.

“Universities are producing PhD-level people and industry is hiring PhD-level people so that we increase the overall education level of the general population,” she said.

“That's very healthy for economies, and it's very healthy in innovation and discovery in the private sector — and it can work really well to create better connections between the public sector universities and the private sector industry.”

Added Rodgers: “I think the university has a role in producing that industry-employed PhD, particularly in areas like engineering or biochemistry or pharmaceuticals, those kinds of areas. But the professoriate career path is really quite different, and we need to attract people in order to do that to keep up that knowledge creation.”

The Statistics Canada data also showed that women's representation in academia has more than tripled since the early 1970s, increasing from 13 per cent to 42 per cent in the 2021/2022 academic year.

With more male professors nearing retirement age, the share of women may increase further, as they are more represented in the younger cohorts of academics, according to the data which was collected from 111 public degree-granting institutions with 47,799 full-time academic teaching staff in 2021/2022.

But Rogers said there’s more work to do on equity and diversity in universities.

“We're still seeing career pathways be less supportive of women advancing through the ranks than men, and that would be a whole other conversation as to why that is the case,” she said.

“But we are acutely aware of that and working on strategies to make sure that women are not reaching artificial barriers and that there is progression through their promotion.”

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