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Higher-education scholarships and fellowships miss the mark by $8,500

The government is being urged to increase financial aid for graduate students and postdocs.

BY MAXIME BILODEAU | AUG 16 2022

Recipients of the Canada Graduate Scholarships for master’s programs receive an annual stipend of $17,500 – a figure that has not changed since 2003. Had the program kept pace with the rising cost of living over the past two decades, these students would be getting $26,104. As of July 2022, that represents a shortfall of almost 50 per cent, according to the Bank of Canada inflation calculator.

“How can we think this situation, which affects master’s, doctoral and postdoctoral students alike, is acceptable given the current level of inflation?” asked Maxime Blanchette-Joncas, Bloc Québécois MP for Rimouski-Neigette-Témiscouata-Les Basques. Mr. Blanchette-Joncas is also the vice-chair of the House of Commons’ new Standing Committee on Science and Research, which was formed after a unanimous vote in 2021.

The committee tabled its first-ever report on June 6 as part of a study titled “Successes, Challenges and Opportunities for Science in Canada.” The committee held seven meetings, heard from 46 witnesses and received 14 briefs in the course of its work last winter and spring. The report makes 13 recommendations on improving the current state of science research on an national scale, two of which concern the value of graduate and postdoc scholarships.

First, the committee recommended “that the Government of Canada increase the number of scholarships and fellowships to graduate students and postdoctoral researchers and increase their value by 25 per cent and index it to the consumer price index.” In its second recommendation on adjusting scholarships and fellowships, the committee said funding should be indexed on an ongoing basis.

Where did 25 per cent come from? “The committee based this figure on a document provided by Universities Canada,” said Mr. Blanchette-Joncas. Thatorganization, which represents Canadian universities at home and abroad (and is the publisher of University Affairs), said 25 per cent would “make up for successive declines in real value caused by inflation.” The increase would equate to an additional investment of $154 million per year, or $770 million over five years.

The U15 Group of Canadian Research Universities recommends tripling the number of graduate student scholarships and fellowships. Meanwhile, Universities Canada calls for doubling them.

However, some recommendations did not make it into the committee’s report. The Quebec Student Union, for example, took issue with the fact that federal research grants often run dry before students have completed their graduate program. “Doctoral fellowships provide funding for three years, but it’s quite common for a doctoral degree to take longer than that,” the union said in its brief.

Academia united

Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED), led by Minister François-Philippe Champagne, responded tersely to the tabling of the committee’s report. A spokesperson for the department said in an email to University Affairs that ISED “is currently reviewing the report and consulting with the government as a whole on a response, which we expect to present to the House of Commons by the October 4, 2022 deadline.”

But Josée Bastien, president of the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies (CAGS), is encouraged by the committee’s recommendations. “What they propose is a good starting point,” she said. “Permanently indexing scholarships to the cost of living is paramount for us.”

CAGS is one of more than 6,500 signatories to an open letter requesting an increase in the level of support provided by Canada’s Tri-Agencies to graduate students and postdoctoral fellows.

At a meeting of the standing committee, Jean-Pierre Perrault, vice-president of research and graduate studies at Université de Sherbrooke, pointed out that “the poverty line today is over $20,000 a year.” By maintaining the status quo, “what we are offering students now is an invitation to live below the poverty line.”

Dr. Bastien, who is also the dean of graduate and postdoctoral studies at Université Laval, sees this as a long-term threat to the appeal of higher education. “Canada needs to recruit and retain top-caliber students in its universities and laboratories. Faced with fierce international competition, we are clearly sending the wrong message,” she said.

According to data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Canada is the only G7 country whose gross domestic spending on research and development (R&D) has declined since 2001. Only Italy invests less money in R&D than Canada (1.53 per cent versus 1.70 per cent of GDP in 2020). The OECD also noted a steady decline in the number of researchers per 1,000 people employed in Canada since 2011.

“The government has a golden opportunity here. The academic community is united on the issue and time is of the essence,” said Mr. Blanchette-Joncas. Any increase at all would be welcomed by the graduate students who are most affected. Many testified before the committee about the harsh living conditions they currently face.

“Canadian post-doc pay is so low that I earned more as an Australian PhD student with some casual teaching roles than I did in Canada. On top of that, every year Canada gave me a pay cut in real terms because my Canadian postdoc salary wasn’t indexed for inflation, nor did it rise with experience,” Shaun Khoo, a postdoctoral fellow from Université de Montréal, testified on May 5.

Andrea Wishart, a PhD student at the University of Saskatchewan, summed it up eloquently: “As early career researchers trained in Canada, we want to stay. We want to do the work. To commit to a career rooted in science and research is to profess our conviction that a better future is in our hands for the making. We just need the resources to survive and thrive.”

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  1. Michael Monagan / August 17, 2022 at 15:00

    I think they are looking at the wrong group of students. The students who don’t get an NSERC scholarships are the ones that often live on next to nothing. The NSERC students can top up their funding with some TA money as teaching assistants and/or RA money as research assistants. The students who don’t get NSERCs are get TA, RA and scholarship money but it often adds up to under $25,000 per year, and at our university they have to pay student fees. The NSERC scholarship amounts are still good. What we really need is for research grants to be increased so we faculty can pay better money for student RAs.

  2. Nancy Stevens / August 22, 2022 at 07:40

    Having been a single parent student through both a masters and PhD, I can say that this scholarship – even with the 25% increase – does not cut it when it comes to the needs of single parents. Obtaining a graduate degree is a substantial pathway out of poverty for many of us, and especially those of us who do not have any form of child support. The structure of so many scholarships which seem to be based on a minimum wage type of standard, while helpful, remain woefully inadequate. This is even more true now with the skyrocketing inflation.