Graduate students facing cuts to funding packages

University say it’s not uncommon for adjustments to be made

Melissa Forcione, pictured on Sept. 12 in Douglas Library, is concerned with the way Queen’s handled the funding package for her PhD studies. 

Back in March, graduate student Melissa Forcione received her first funding package offer letter from the Queen’s Department of Geography and Planning. Months later, she found herself scrambling when that funding package was revoked.

Forcione, PhD ’20, joins a number of graduate students whose funding — intended to cover research and living expenses — was abruptly cut due to external awards or reallocated department funding.

Forcione was originally offered a combined teaching assistantship and Queen’s Graduate Award, for $10,376 and $8,000 respectively.

After negotiations, she was offered a higher value of $21,076 for the coming year, with a minimum of $18,000 for her following years of study.

However, on May 16, an email from the Vice-Provost and Dean of the School of Graduate Studies, Brenda Brouwer, selected Forcione as the recipient of the 2016-17 Academic Excellence Award, at a value of $30,000.

“Of course, this was wonderful news!” she wrote in an e-mail to The Journal. “I was aware that this award was going to change the make-up of my funding package.”

As the recipient of two Ontario Graduate Scholarships during her Masters degree at Queen’s, she was conscious that the value of her graduate scholarship may change. Upon arrival on campus in August, though, she was informed by her department that there were likely other consequences.

“I was informed by Geography admin that I was likely not to receive a TA position anymore because of the award I received,” she said.

“I was shocked and extremely disappointed — why was I being penalized because I received what the School of Graduate Studies explains is a ‘prestigious new award [that] is granted to highly qualified applicants’?”

Her supervisor, who she contacted for support, suggested that Forcione look for TA positions in other departments as a backup.

Forcione was eventually offered a half TA position in the Geography department, for which she considers herself lucky. However, she’s frustrated with the administrative view of funding.

“To have both an external award and financial support from one’s department should not be considered a ridiculous accumulation of wealth,” she wrote. “It should be considered a decent standard of living.”

She maintains that the correspondence sent to her concerning her funding package was ambiguous in terms of how her funding package may be changed.

“I want to see contracts with clear definitions of what students should expect from funding packages in cases where they receive external awards,” she said.

In an email to The Journal, Dean Brouwer stated that “it is not uncommon for adjustments to be made to the source of funding for graduate students.”

A standard funding letter, she continued, will indicate the level of funding that a student can expect, and that it may be made up from awards both internal and external, as well as TAship or research assistantship.

“This is done because frequently letters of offer are sent out before the department has full details about the outcome of funding competitions (e.g. scholarships and grants) and the availability of RAships and TAships,” Brouwer wrote. 

“As such, the program requires flexibility in how it will meet its funding commitments, taking into account the resources available and also the relevant terms and conditions.”

Brouwer told The Journal that the funding would be offered one way or another.

“The university is committed to providing the funding amount outlined in the correspondence. The source of the funding may change (see above), but the amount stated in the offer is guaranteed – it is the commitment made by the program of study,” she wrote.

Carissa Taylor, Chair of the National Graduate Caucus of the Canadian Federation of Students, weighed in on the issue at Queen’s as well as on a national scale.

“It is up to institutions to make the decision about what happens with internal awards after an external award is granted, and often times the decision is made to severely cut internal funding,” she said.

“Institutions choose to sidestep their responsibility to adequately fund graduate students in order to save what is, compared to their overall budget, pennies,” Taylor said.

Another Queen’s graduate student, who requested anonymity due to fear for their professional and academic reputation, told The Journal they faced a significant drop in their funding package after their first year of studies.

“I had no place to voice my opinion and negotiate the situations,” they said. The individual, like Forcione, did eventually secure funding for their project through external money. 

In the end, the student didn't have to face an increased financial difficulty. However, “the fact that my department was not consistent in their promise of guaranteed funding to me was very difficult to deal with,” they said.

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