The Canadian Association of University Teachers

The National Voice for Academic Professionals and Staff

Established in 1951, the Canadian Association of University Teachers was created with a primary mandate of supplying the national voice for academic professionals and staff nationwide. Furthermore there was an incentive to develop a collective capacity to deal with issues such as salaries, tenure, pensions, income tax policy, sabbaticals and academic freedom.

A catalyst that unified efforts in expanding the authoritative reach of the CAUT centred on the firing of a professor at United College in Winnipeg in 1958 and the CAUT’s immediate reactive decision to set up its first investigatory committee, which ultimately changed the course of the association forever, and for the better. It was a case that garnered widespread attention right across the country on the issue of academic freedom for staff in academic institutions.

Now, 64 years later, the Ottawa-based association stands strong in uniting 68,000 professional educators and protecting their rights in the workplace at 122 universities and colleges, with an annual budget of more than $7 million and admirable representation across all 10 provinces. The CAUT robustly defends academic freedom as the right to teach, learn, study and publish free of orthodoxy or threat of reprisal and discrimination. Academic freedom includes the right to constructively criticize an educational institution and the right to participate in its governance.

The Canadian Business Journal recently spoke with the current CAUT President Robin Vose, who is based in Fredericton, New Brunswick where he works in the History department at St Thomas University. A president’s term is for one year with elections being held at Spring Council at the end of April. There is a term limit of three years that any one person can hold the position.

The CAUT is a voluntary association so it’s really a matter of who wants to join. However, certain criteria must be met regarding acceptance for membership. The CAUT only grants acceptance to associations that adhere to a democratic constitution, and are not controlled by the employer. Member associations also must have provisions stipulating that they are genuinely committed to the principles of academic freedom.

“We do not allow membership from an association that would require, for example, a faith test or an ideological test of its membership,” Vose explains. “There are religious colleges that ask for a faith test of their professors, which is the employer imposing that. We would still allow the association in if they believe they should have academic freedom, and are committed to striving for it.”

In the early 1950s, when the CAUT was still in its fledgling formative years, a professor’s position was very highly regarded by the general public and viewed as being quite gentlemanly. While there was a desire on behalf of the association to ensure fair and equitable remuneration, monetary compensation was not the primary reason for its existence. The backbone is that the faculty as a whole has always staunchly believed that you cannot have a free and effective university system that does not have academic freedom. The ability to conduct real research is merely ideology and doctrine without academic freedom and it’s that inherent belief which remains the CAUT’s guiding principle to this day.

“Remember 1951 – McCarthy – Red Scare. You had professors like Bertrand Russell in the U.S. being fired for not conforming to Christian standards. There was still have a lot of religious orthodoxy being imposed even in mainstream universities,” Vose reveals.

The termination of professors who were critical of their school’s presidents or spoke out with different opinions about religion or politics is what ultimately incentivized a movement. Vose says that academic freedom is by far one of the top pillars of decent working conditions, without which it becomes virtually impossible to properly do one’s job as an educator.

The CAUT takes on a number of cases of academic freedom violations every year, where professors have been either disciplined or terminated for their speech or research, angering the wrong people. Through advocacy and threats of censure, the association has successfully managed to resolve, positively, almost 100% of the cases where they’ve defended academic freedom.

“I’m very proud of our record on academic freedom,” Vose says, with due reason.


Any association of academic staff who work in a university, and who meet the criteria of being democratic and independent, will be permitted to join as members. In practice, the CAUT has most of the faculty associations in Anglophone Canada. In addition to professors, the association also represents librarians, clinicians and various support staff, including part-time faculty employees. The relationship with Quebec is an interesting and historical one. Since the 1980s, some Francophone universities in Quebec chose to have their own independent national association.

“We work very closely with all our faculty allies in Quebec, both those who are members of CAUT (such as Laval) and those who are members of our sister organizations such as FQPPU and FNEEQ,” Vose tells us.

It is the direction of the full council that decides all corporate policy with each organization having the right to send representatives to the CAUT council, which meets twice a year. The council takes votes on matters of policy, which are then upheld by the executive team. Between two annual meetings, Vose and the rest of the elected executive members congregate at least five times in Ottawa in addition to sharing ongoing telephone and email communication.

The vast majority of the day-to-day work is conducted by staff members in Ottawa, including research for campaigns and developing media information, which is overseen by the executive branch. They will also provide feedback and direction within the confines of the policy statement. One of the major concerns right now focuses on fair compensation and a level of job security.

“This is a huge concern for us right now because there is a real push on to eliminate or cut back on tenure track full-time time jobs and to replace professors with part-time or contract staff who are poorly paid and who have no permanency, so they can be terminated from one semester to the next,” Vose says.

Funding and Governance

Research funding is another critical area that allows professors to properly carry out the tasks they were hired to execute. It includes the need for access to proper facilities, including lab space and access to computers. Research and teaching also has to be free of restrictions, and peer evaluated as opposed to being determined by an outside force.

“We’re very much against corporations or governments tying research funding to an expected outcome,” Vose declares.
The CAUT strongly endorses the belief that a post-secondary education working climate for its members suffers greatly if there is not accessibility to higher education for all students. It’s important that everyone not only be able to attend university from a financial standpoint but that they are equally treated once they get there.

“We focus on women’s rights and minority rights. Traditionally, the university has been a bastion of male white privilege. Our workplace suffers if we are exclusive and keep out huge swaths of our creative, intelligent population, so we’re very much advocating for accessible and equitable higher education,” Vose adds.

Collegial governance in the university is paramount to achieving maximized academic freedom. The CAUT wants professors to be an integral part in the decision-making process regarding the direction the university takes in moving forward, including programs and curriculum.

“As an example, we don’t want the university telling us they’ve decided not to teach history anymore and that economics is all that really matters, so history is being terminated – thank you very much,” Vose says.

Federal and provincial support for universities and colleges needs to be fortified according to Vose in order that tuition fees can be lowered, class sizes reduced, and research programs and projects expanded. He and other members of the CAUT actively lobby the federal government to increase its contributions to the provinces in support of post-secondary education and for more adequate funding of basic research. Over the past two decades, governments have noticeably meandered out of the business of funding universities to the extent they did in the past, leaving universities and colleges to find other sources of revenues, which essentially comes down to tuition fees charged to students, as is plainly evidenced by the direct correlation between increased university tuition fees and a lack of government funding.

“When I went to university in the early 1990s tuition was still something that was affordable for somebody who worked over the summer,” Vose recalls. “We’re at the point now where my daughter can’t afford to go to university and I’m still repaying my student debts. When I started it was affordable but by the time I finished my PhD in 2004, it was not. It’s become a generational issue.”

Lobbying Efforts

Lobbying the government is a big part of the CAUT’s mandate, and specifically that of Vose as president along with the executive and council. At the November council meeting the CAUT traditionally has a Parliament Hill day, where Vose, as president, and other representatives of the association from across the country will make appointments to lobby their MPs and ministers to push for a greater awareness of higher education issues. The federal government is not directly responsible for university education, so dialogue in that regard tends to focus more on policies at the national level.

“What we typically ask them to think about is having a dedicated post-secondary education transfer to the provinces, like we have for health,” Vose explains. “Right now, each province gets to decide what chunk of the provincial transfer they are going to earmark for university education and all other infrastructure they are responsible for, but health has a dedicated envelope. We believe that would really help universities to set stable funding goals.”

The CAUT also lobbies for federal research funding. There are three such funding agencies that funnel monies into individual research projects or collaborative university projects. Unfortunately, its upkeep has waned and has in fact been in decline for the past several years.

“We have to get away from targeting research money towards corporate partnerships,” Vose states. “There is a place for that as long as it’s transparent and fair but we are really concerned that should not become the norm. We still need basic research that gives us scientific innovation.”

There is a level of frustration from the academic community in that even when funds are made available for research, there is too much outside interference on how the money should be spent. Vose would like nothing better than to have the experts determine where the funding would be used most efficiently and appropriately.

Future Plans

Despite a number of hurdles and roadblocks along the way, Vose feels extremely proud about the excellent work and achievements being made at the CAUT and is optimistic that the association is making excellent strides and provides a positive influence within the industry. The big push right now is the ‘Get Science Right’ campaign which sends a direct message to the public and the politicians advocating that best practices be incorporated to benefit all of society as opposed to merely finding superior ways for corporations to maximize their bottom line. It’s about funding basic curiosity-driven, peer-reviewed research.

“Sometimes that research fails to generate profits but in the aggregate it pushes science forward and that benefits everybody,” Vose says. “’Get Science Right’ has been a big focus for us and I’m very proud of it. It’s led to us partnering with other associations for public scientists who work for the federal government and it’s given us a certain amount of media coverage because people care about science.”

Vose is also exceptionally proud of the efforts that have been made to fight for the rights of contract academic staff – people who don’t have full-time, permanent employment— but he admits there is still a long way to go.

“I’m proud of our efforts, but I can’t say I’m proud of all our results so far,” he candidly states. “We continue to fight for fairness for all faculty members but it’s a really steep road to go up.

The CAUT also boasts an impressive international presence. For the first time in history, Education International‘s World Congress met in Canada this past July. This is an organization that represents teachers from pre-kindergarten to post-secondary education around the world, with more than 30 million members. The CAUT co-hosted the event in Ottawa, where nearly two thousand delegates from around the world were on hand. Topics included everything from deterioration of working conditions and labour rights to privatization of schools in Africa and elsewhere around the globe.

“CAUT made a point of standing up for contract academics and passing resolutions directing the international community to make it a priority to work towards fairness for all professors and teachers in giving them job security and fair wages,” Vose says.

The achievements and successes of the CAUT are impressive and even more so when doing a direct comparison with similar organizations in other countries, including the United States. Vose has colleagues south of the border who have spoken out against their administrations and they’ve paid the price in losing their jobs. Academic freedom is much more robust in Canada than just about anywhere else in the world, and it’s significantly due to the ongoing efforts of CAUT.

In the next three to five years Vose wants to see the CAUT continue with its core efforts pertaining to academic freedom and protecting the working conditions for all staff, which includes better equity for faculty and students, where women and minorities feel welcome and can fully participate. This fall the CAUT will host an Aboriginal forum in Winnipeg in an effort to keep issues in that regard front and centre. In the past there has been much discussion and problems have been identified, but Vose says it’s time to actually put words into motion and apply those thoughts and ideas into real life, practical initiatives.

“I would highlight the role of Indigenous knowledge and Aboriginal education in universities,” he says. “It’s time to take action on our woeful history of excluding and marginalizing Aboriginal peoples from the academy.”

Vose also hopes to see a higher level of engagement and participation and by extension a feeling of ownership of the CAUT by all member associations so everyone is made aware of the excellent work being spearheaded. It’s a desire to have everyone feel that the CAUT truly is an association for everyone who has membership.

“All society should have an interest in making sure that education is accessible and equitable and free to pursue the best new ideas in science and culture,” Vose says. “It’s about collaborating to improve knowledge.”

Photo credits: Paul B Jones