The indignity of grad students’ frozen federal funds

Student status obscures labouring in poverty

Returning to campus for the fall semester, many of us will ignore displeased hissing as the most miserable members of the U of M retreat under sunny streams of shimmering dust motes into the shadows. Poring over their hardbound Heideggers and grease-caked centrifuges, these are graduate students.

Grad students aren’t just students, they’re early-career researchers with none of the recognition or benefits. They’re apprentice researchers and professionals, expected to dedicate their full attention to their programs. Except unlike an electrician apprenticeship, for example, grad students are considered lucky if they’re paid at all.

Domestic master’s students at the U of M generally pay almost $3,000 minimum during the fall and winter terms for their first year in tuition, and PhD students pay $3,000 for the fall and winter terms for their first two years. Every summer term and every subsequent winter and fall term after that, graduate students face a $553 continuing fee plus the laundry list of other fees every student must pay.

Continuing fees skim a few extra million dollars off the graduate student population when they are finished their coursework. Woe betide anyone who wants to be a dentist, physical therapist or otherwise enroll in any other professional master’s program. Not even those programs’ $5,000 to $13,000 tuition charges will exonerate you from paying continuing fees.

Grad school does not have to be as financially cumbersome as it is at the U of M. While some Canadian universities like York or the University of Toronto offer most full-time graduate students a base level of funding, the U of M does not.

Working conditions like this take a toll globally. Graduate students in North and South America, Europe, Africa, Australia and Asia all report financial stress affecting their daily life. Research shows that in grad school, as with any other work environment, greater financial distress is associated with depressive symptoms.

In Canada, many graduate students are driven by the hope of some sort of financial stability to spend weeks of their lives writing grant applications for meagre tri-agency fellowships. The awards are so named for the three composite bodies that confer them — the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).

Tri-agency funding theoretically makes research possible even if that research is not yet commercially viable. However, the tri-agency graduate scholarships have not increased in value since they were introduced in 2003. A master’s level SSHRC award is currently valued at $17,500. Using the Bank of Canada’s inflation calculator, that award should be valued at almost $27,000 in 2023.

Tri-agency awards available to PhD students — SSHRC’s are valued at $20,000 and $35,000 per year for three years each — also have not increased since 2003. One of the most prestigious federal scholarships is the Vanier scholarship, an award for PhD candidates that amounts to $50,000 a year for three years. It too has been frozen at that amount since its introduction in 2008, and only 166 PhD candidates maximum receive the award annually.

After deducting the cost of tuition or continuing fees, as well as living expenses like rent, groceries, cell phone and internet bills, there is barely anything left to live without stress even in Manitoba for those who win these tri-council awards.

Imagine the increased stress for students who do not win tri-agency funding, are not offered other stipends or live in cities like Toronto or Vancouver where the average price of a one-bedroom apartment is $2,500 and $3,000 per month respectively.

The value of these awards can make grad school sound like a sweet deal. But these awards are not granted to students to sit in a lecture hall for two to four years. Grad students are expected to conduct original research, to juggle teaching classes with that research, to share their work at conferences, to participate in university life and often to publish their work while living on stipends. $20,000 a year before rent and tuition is not enough money to live in dignity, let alone conduct rigorous research.

Labelling graduate researchers “students” and what are effectively their salaries as “scholarships” obscures the reality that they are being exploited.

A recent movement called Support our Science has been protesting abysmal federal funding packages for grad students in Canada. One of their important asks is for the feds to increase the quantity of tri-agency awards.

Census data shows increasing proportions of the population are graduating with master’s degrees and doctorates every year. Between 2016 and 2021, the proportion of the Canadian population with master’s degrees increased from 4.6 per cent to 5.7 per cent. Yet the number of tri-agency awards offered decreased in 2010.

In other words, tri-agency funding has become scarcer while the real value of the awards diminishes and competition grows steadily more fierce.

Economic downturn and uncertainty fomented by the pandemic inspired a drastic increase in the number of applications for graduate schools by 2021. Even so, the rate of postgraduate attainment in Canada trails behind other G7 nations.

Those who don’t currently have plans to go to grad school might find these issues hard to care about, but it is increasingly likely it will affect you in the future. Personally, I didn’t always plan to do a master’s degree, and then a brain parasite took residence in my corpus callosum. After almost dropping out of university when I was 19, I never imagined finishing a master’s degree until I actually did it.

This system is exploitative, forcing people who are passionate about their fields to effectively pay to do research for universities. Because we associate the label of “student” with absorbing rather than generating new information, there is no political will to improve grad students’ situations. In fact, it seems like many people think grad students deserve to work in poverty, because people don’t consider being a student a real job.

But the problems affecting grad students are just a taste of wider problems in not only Canada but the world, including decayed social safety nets, the steep cost of living and a general devaluing of researching and learning.

Grad students are helping society better understand the past, develop treatment for diseases, deal with ethical problems and think critically, among other things. If we don’t support the student researchers who keep universities ticking, we’ll all suffer for it down the line.