Finding affordable Toronto housing has become an increasing challenge over the last decade due to the city’s growing population. This particularly affects graduate students attending the four universities within the city’s jurisdiction, a large share of which study at U of T’s downtown campus. 

Graduate student intake at U of T has grown by approximately 23 per cent since the 2014–2015 academic year, and the average rent in Canada has risen by approximately 32 per cent from 2010–2018. Yet publicly available data indicates that graduate funding packages have remained relatively stagnant.

Coupled with Toronto’s increasing rent and population, “governments frequently make matters worse by incentivizing home ownership over renting,” explained Dr. Dwayne Benjamin, Vice Dean Graduate Education of the Faculty of Arts & Science and an economics professor at U of T, in an email to The Varsity.

U of T has been investing in housing for its graduate students, but change for students is still several years away.

Surveying graduate students in the Faculty of Medicine

The Graduate Representation Committee (GRC), an assembly of student advocates for nine basic science departments comprising the Faculty of Medicine (FoM), conducted a student survey in 2019 to understand the financial situations and well-being of graduate students in the faculty.

Out of the 426 survey respondents, 85 per cent declared that they could not support themselves solely on graduate funding, and 42 per cent responded that they needed an additional $5,000 a year to meet their living expenses.

The FoM’s funding package lies below the “Low-Income Measure, After Tax” line, which means that the government considers students who rely solely on this funding to make ends meet to be “low-income” and “substantially worse off than others.”

Despite this, graduate students in the FoM have one of the highest base-funding packages at U of T, and therefore students in other faculties might face similar, if not worse, difficulties in affording housing close to UTSG.

Main implications of these findings

To mitigate short-term funding gaps, the GRC has recommended several measures, and has negotiated a five per cent funding package increase for the 2019–2020 and 2020–2021 terms for FoM graduate students.

Samantha Ing-Esteves, a graduate student and member of the GRC, further explained the survey’s findings.

“Based on student comments, one of the main challenges is finding accommodation that is suitable for graduate education,” Ing-Esteves said. “Finding an affordable apartment where students are able to work and be productive is challenging.”

As one student commented in the GRC report, “My current rent is already considered fairly cheap in downtown Toronto. However, I am living in a basement and the living conditions are incredibly poor.”

Martino Gabra, a member of the GRC who has had success finding suitable housing, noted that there’s an element of luck involved. “I was able to get into my current apartment with no issue,” said Gabra. “Cheap Toronto housing does have an element of who you know.”

A quarter of respondents have turned to living with family and spouses to circumvent this funding gap, saving approximately $400 per month compared to students living with one or more roommates. 

One student in the survey wrote, “I would not be able to pursue graduate studies if I did not have subsidized rent because I live with extended family.”

Other financial aid

One third of respondents use loans to support financial needs. However, the recent changes to the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) by the Ford government have placed a further onus on some students to generate additional income.

A subset of respondents have done this through teaching assistantships or secondary jobs. 

One student wrote, “I already lived by a budget, but since the new OSAP changes, I worry every day about if I will have enough money for the month even on a strict budget… I worry that if I don’t work part-time I will not be able to support myself.”

International students have an additional burden as they are not eligible for many scholarships that domestic students may claim. “International students suffer the most where domestic students walk away with scholarships while international students have to struggle [with fewer] scholarship options and survive [with a] lesser stipend [funding package]” added one student.

Benjamin noted, “For students, the university realizes this is a real problem — and not just for graduate students.”