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Vanier scholarships challenged by tight deadlines

The awards brand Canada as a destination for top-flight students, but can they meet their potential to attract international students in the short term?

BY PEGGY BERKOWITZ | DEC 01 2008

When the Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarships were announced in the 2008 federal budget, they were positioned as a “magnet” for the world’s top graduate students. Valued at $50,000 a year tax-free, these are the first federal scholarships open to international doctoral students as well as to Canadians.

But the program’s design and this year’s tight nomination deadline have raised questions among some in the university community as to whether the awards can fulfill this goal, at least in the short term.

The two- or three-year scholarships are meant to reward excellence. “We wanted to ensure that the Vaniers go to the best and the brightest, and that [the process] is competitive overall,” said Pamela Moss, director of scholarships and fellowships at the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council.

In the first year, 165 scholarships will be divided equally among the three major research granting councils, which fund health, science and engineering, and humanities and social sciences. A two-part peer-review process will culminate with the winners being notified in April after their selection by a blue-ribbon, inter-agency, independent selection board.

Universities have welcomed the new funding and supported the goal of attracting top doctoral students.

“The huge thing about this program is that it’s a high-profile scholarship program that can attract international students to Canada,” said John Hepburn, vice-president, research, at the University of British Columbia. “It’s a long time since Canada has put itself on the world stage with big attention-grabbing scholarships, and that’s a hugely positive step.”

Claire Morris, president of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, said, “This investment makes us competitive with other prestigious scholarship programs.”

Tight deadlines

Launched in September, the Vanier program had a nomination deadline of Nov. 14. Granting council representatives discussed the program on campuses and through video conferences this past fall, but program administrators knew that the tight deadlines would make it difficult to get the word out internationally in time to get a big complement of foreign applicants in the first round.

But besides the deadlines, some in the community say that another issue worked against the stated goal of attracting international nominees – a program design quirk that’s been dubbed “the CGS guarantee.”

To be eligible for the Vanier scholarships from the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council or the Social Science and Humanities Research Council, doctoral students had to be nominated by the university where they wished to study. NSERC and SSHRC said that any eligible Canadians nominated for a Vanier who wasn’t successful would get a Canada Graduate Scholarship, or CGS, instead. The CGS awards are also highly competitive, are more plentiful, and pay $35,000 at the doctoral level.

But international students don’t qualify for the CGS. So some administrators were reluctant to use up their precious quota of nominees for foreign student names. (NSERC and SSHRC each accepted just 120 nominees from all eligible universities, with quotas linked to each institution’s level of council funding.)

For example, Dalhousie University has an allotment of three Vanier nominations per granting council. It asked its academic units to include foreign student names for its internal Vanier selection committees to consider, explained Dieter Peltzer, associate dean of graduate studies at Dalhousie.

“But the reality was – and that is an intrinsic flaw in the Vaniers – that most nominations were Canadian.” A department with equally qualified Canadian and foreign students would tend to put the Canadian forward, he said, “because then you have a good chance of getting at least $35,000” for the student.

Ms. Moss of NSERC acknowledged the concerns about program design. But she also noted the program’s dual objective of attracting top scholars and retaining the best graduate students in Canada. In nominating scholars, “it’s important for universities to determine what their strategy is,” she said. “Is their strategy to increase international participation?” If so, they can use their quotas to do so.

That’s the intention of some large universities such as UBC, whose mission is focused on excellence on the international stage. Any international Vanier nominee from UBC who isn’t successful would “in all likelihood” receive an institutional scholarship, even though they don’t qualify for the CGS, said Barbara Evans, dean of graduate studies at UBC. These institutional awards are adjudicated internally and valued at up to $27,500.

Dr. Peltzer of Dalhousie said, “Unfortunately we don’t have the resources that UBC has.”

Applications counted

By the Nov. 14 deadline, SSHRC had received 115 nominations out of its 120 limit. NSERC had received 129 (the science and engineering council included an extra layer of competition that allows 20 small universities to compete for three of the 120 nominations). Neither council would reveal the domestic-international breakdown.

The Canadian Institutes of Health Research has a different application process that doesn’t trigger the “CGS guarantee.” It permitted unlimited applications for the Vaniers directly from eligible Canadian students, and gave eligible universities a total quota of 70 for foreign nominees (70 is the most each council can put forward to the final level of competition), with institutional quotas based on their level of CIHR funding. All award applicants, whether domestic or international, are evaluated under CIHR’s regular doctoral research awards competition, with the 70 top-ranked candidates to be forwarded to the Vanier inter-agency selection board.

CIHR received 44 nominations for international students out of the possible 70.

“It was a bit of a surprise” not to get its full quota of nominees, said Catherine Conrad, director of research capacity development at CIHR, but not entirely. Since the program was launched only in September, “it was going to be very challenging for institutions to get the international nominees,” she said.

“And also I think that institutions are rightly being very selective. They’re not frivolously putting forward candidates.”

For the next round of Vanier scholarships, the three councils have promised to harmonize the nomination process, noted Gordana Krcevinac, director of fellowships and institutional grants for SSHRC.

Ms. Conrad said that measures could be taken to remove the problem of the CGS guarantee, such as staggered deadlines for different scholarship competitions.

“How we’ll deliver things next year is still speculation. We’re all in a learning mode,” said Ms. Conrad, “and we’ll know better in the next few weeks or months.”

Meanwhile, Dr. Hepburn, UBC’s vice-president research, reiterated that he finds it “really positive [that] Canada is putting itself on the world stage with a program like the Guggenheim or Rhodes scholarship.”

He added, “I’d just like to help figure out ways of optimizing the program such that it is an international recruitment tool and universities really use it to focus their international efforts.”

Generous awards

The Vanier scholarship – named for the late Georges P. Vanier, a decorated soldier, diplomat and Governor General of Canada – was designed to compete with other prestigious named scholarships such as the Rhodes and the Fulbright.

But some administrators are saying that the Vanier, at $50,000 tax-free, was priced higher than necessary. The Rhodes pays graduate students approximately $22,000 a year, plus tuition. The U.S. Fulbright graduate scholarship pays US$19,000 (it’s possible for U.S. universities top it up).

“Certainly from the academics’ point of view … more [scholarships] at $30,000 rather than fewer at $50,000 would have made a difference in our ability to train graduate students,” said J.J. Berry Smith, associate dean of graduate studies at the University of Toronto.

Several associate deans of graduate studies noted that Vanier recipients could be taking home more money than a beginning associate professor, typically earning about $75,000 before tax.

Some also have concerns about the varied funding levels for graduate scholarships, with the Vanier paying $50,000, the CGS paying $35,000 at the doctoral level, and the doctoral scholarships awarded by each granting council valued at about $20,000 to $23,000.

“The perception in the community that you have levels of excellence is something we’re certainly looking at,” said Ms. Krcevinac of SSHRC, noting that an evaluation of the CGS program is under way. But she and others cautioned that changing the value of the Vaniers is probably not in the cards; a major change like that cannot be made by the granting councils.

The government plans to market the Vanier scholarships widely in time for next year’s nominations, said Ursula Gobel, communications director at SSHRC. She said the Vaniers are being promoted on a dedicated website, as well as with university partners and with the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade at educational fairs in key markets such as India, China and the Americas, under the new “Education in/au Canada” banner.

Some of the largest universities are also planning to market the Vanier scholarships together as a group, as well as individually, said Dr. Hepburn. “One frustration of going out on the international stage as a Canadian university is we have very little to offer.” But now, he said, “the Vaniers give us a story to tell.

“If I’m speaking in Bangalore, maybe only half a dozen will get these scholarships.” But that doesn’t matter, “because there’s something for them to compete for, and to think about Canada as a destination.”

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