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Funding cuts, high tuition and empty pockets

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Recently The Queen’s Journal shed some light on the reality of how graduate students’ funding packages can be drastically changed from their original agreement. 

However, certain aspects about this reality warrant more attention — especially regarding how graduate student poverty and professional development experiences are tied to these cuts. 

Graduate students may find that the ambiguous standard statement in their funding letter explaining how “the makeup of your package may change” is a huge understatement. That is how I felt when my funding package was swept from under my feet after I received an Academic Excellence Award. 

The first time I walked into my new department, the Geography administration promptly followed their congratulations for my award with a harsh dose of reality — I was likely no longer going to get a teaching assistant position because I was now considered ‘well-funded’. 

One may think that a $30,000 award is huge by students’ standards — which realistically, and unfortunately, it is. But if this award potentially takes away all professional development opportunities and the income that comes with it, students who receive it can consider themselves at a loss. 

 I was being penalized because I received what the School of Graduate Studies explains is a “prestigious new award [that] is granted to highly qualified applicants”. Students in my situation have their original funding supposedly redistributed to other students that haven’t received awards. 

This leaves me to wonder why students have their funding cut and employment taken away to help other students. That should come from the top of the academic ladder, not the bottom.

Many of us already need to worry about paying for living expenses, funding our research, supporting our families and gradually paying off debt from our last degree. Students shouldn’t have their funding packages, and by default their lives, so easily meddled with. 

The make-up of funding packages offered by universities bear a lot of weight in a student’s decision of where they choose to pursue their graduate degree. Financial support offered by a department often determines whether or not a student will live in poverty, finish their degree with crippling debt, or get paid a fair salary.  

Professional development opportunities included in an offer, whether a teaching or research assistantship, is crucial to a graduate student’s chance at securing employment after their degree — especially in today’s extremely competitive academic job market. 

Unfortunately, a graduate student’s funding package is not secure. It’s subject to change for a variety of reasons. 

In my case, it was the reception of an external award.

According to Queen’s policy, to even qualify for the minimum funding guarantee ($18,000 per year for doctoral students), “students must apply for all major external and internal (where appropriate) scholarships for which they are eligible.” 

The awards graduate students are obliged to apply for can — and frequently have been — used as a reason for departments to partially, or completely, revoke the very funding packages that likely influenced the decision to do graduate work at Queen’s. 

Now let me stress — I am pleased and humbled to have received an award. It is, however, a merit-based award. 

I spent many hours writing proposals, finding references for support letters, keeping up grades, and making life decisions that would facilitate such kinds of recognition. 

I did luckily manage to receive a half TA position in my department after scrambling to find other positions at Queen’s. 

But consider this — without additional financial support after receiving a sizeable award, students like me who are considered by their departments as ‘well-funded’ are still at the poverty line for a single adult in Ontario once they pay for tuition, which is often worth a third of their minimum funding package. Many departments at the University of Toronto have avoided making students do this by both providing a funding package and covering tuition fees. 

Receiving both an external or internal award and financial support from one’s department is by no means a ludicrous accumulation of wealth. Having a higher level of financial support than what is currently offered is much more conducive to a decent standard of living and a student’s overall wellbeing. 

Like most doctoral students, I’ll dedicate most of my waking hours in the next four years to research that will benefit both Canadian society and the reputation of Queen’s. I work very hard for very little monetary gain, if any at all. 

Students should never be penalized for receiving an award by having the work component of their funding removed, regardless of the institutional reasoning. 

I don’t want students to have to go through the disappointment and stress I went through when I found out that I was likely no longer employed. This is not conducive to an educational and professional space that fosters good mental health. 

This issue is not openly discussed by graduate students due to a fear of further exclusion from future award and employment opportunities. Recognizing and questioning how departments are allowed to deal with funding in a precarious way is important for all current and prospective students. 

Graduate students deserve to at least know their negotiations with the university for funding are genuine.

Melissa is a first-year PhD student in Geography. 

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