The creation of the Vanier Scholarships for doctoral students has been received as great news by most academics and university presidents. After all, who could be against the injection of fresh money into academia? We all know that Canadian universities are under great financial strains and we should thus all be thankful to the government for its generous investment in the next generation of scholars.
I happen to think differently. Before accepting any new dollars injected into the research system, academics, always proud of their intellectual independence, should first ask: is this investment necessary? Does it serve real needs? Does it create perverse effects and have unintended consequences? The Vanier Scholarships provide us with the latest example of a program that distorts the implicit logic of how graduate training is funded and which requires our critical gaze.
Let me explain.
Since the creation of the first system of scholarships for graduate students by the National Research Council in 1916, it has always been implicit that there be a gradual increase of their monetary value as the student rises up the ladder of the research system. Thus, for the three granting councils, at the end of the 1990s, that translated into a master’s student receiving $17,500, while a PhD student got a bit more at $21,000, and a postdoctoral fellow about $35,000. This made sense – after all, one wouldn’t expect a full professor to be paid less than an assistant professor.
But this was before government ministers and their “experts” decided to devise new signature programs without really consulting the granting councils. The first perturbation came with the Canada Graduate Scholarships, courtesy of the Liberal government of Jean Chrétien. Instead of simply raising the number or the value of existing scholarships, this program offered $35,000 for a “new class” of PhD students. This created two kinds of graduate students: those worth only $20,000 and the new ones worth $35,000. Facing the facts, the granting councils had to adapt their systems so as not to create the absurdity of a postdoctoral fellowship of less value than a doctorate fellowship; so, a postdoc can now get $38,000 from SSHRC and $40,000 from NSERC and CIHR – scientists having, of course, more value than humanists.
The Conservative government of Stephen Harper also decided to create new programs for graduate students, again without understanding the logic of the system. We are now reaching a totally absurd situation of PhD students, with their Vanier Scholarships of $50,000 a year, smiling at postdocs living on $38,000. In certain cases, Vanier Scholars could very well end up sitting in on classes taught by assistant professors earning less than them (taking into account the fact that fellowships are tax exempt in some provinces, thus their real value could be above the salary of many new assistant professors).
A more subtle aspect of this generous but ill-conceived program is that it may give these chosen students the illusion that they are much better or smarter than their peers simply because they get more money. Moreover, they may react with surprise or even disgust a few years later when confronted with a postdoc position of $40,000, if not an assistant professorship for a similar amount or an offer in a private firm for even less.
At this point, I hope that those who first applauded the Vanier program now recognize that it has unintended consequences and needs to be fixed, and quickly.
Since it is now increasingly rare for ministers to cut ribbons at the opening of newly asphalted roads, one can understand their desire to be seen promoting the new highways to knowledge. It is thus highly unlikely that the program will simply be scrapped, with the money distributed to existing fellowships (the most rational choice).
One is therefore left with only one logical and simple solution: the Vanier Scholarships should be strictly reserved for foreign students who want to get their advanced training in a Canadian university. In that case, the difference between the $35,000 of the CGS and the $50,000 of the Vanier can easily be rationalized by saying that it compensates for the cost of moving to Canada, getting settled and paying the higher tuitions imposed by universities.
I know it is never easy to admit to making mistakes, but it is better to make these corrections now by saying that they are in fact “small adjustments” to a “new and exciting program” than to continue with a program that distorts and harms our current system.
Yves Gingras is a history professor and holder of the Canada Research Chair in History and Sociology of Science at Université du Québec à Montréal. His most recent book is Parlons Sciences: Les transformations de l’esprit scientifique, (Boréal, 2008).