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UTGSU town hall pushes for universal, livable graduate student funding

Students voice discontent with financial circumstances during COVID-19
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REBECA MOYA/THE VARSITY
REBECA MOYA/THE VARSITY

On March 11, the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSU) hosted a town hall to discuss a potential harmonized basic funding package for graduate students, which would guarantee them a livable wage. 

The event was hosted by Civics and Environment Commissioner Danielle Karakas and Academics and Funding Commissioner Divisions 3 and 4 June Li. 

Base funding blues

The town hall provided a forum to discuss U of T graduate students’ funding packages. Domestic PhD students at U of T have an average base funding amount of $18,248 while international PhD students have an average base funding amount of $18,384. Their annual tuition fees are $8,478 and $18,828, respectively.

The School of Graduate Studies (SGS), in conjunction with the university’s faculties, determines the base amount within the faculty. Departments within a faculty can each have different funding amounts for their students.

“The need to re-assess the basic funding packages across all faculties was always on the agenda, and work was done in the background with the administration to ensure they would be receptive to the data once collected,” Selah Katona, UTGSU Communications and Engagement Strategist, wrote in an email to The Varsity.

The issue of inadequate funding has been raised many times. Katona wrote that the UTGSU has advocated on behalf of students before, but most solutions come in the form of “temporary financial relief.” The union feels that the best way to deal with this issue is to “assess the funding structure itself.” 

Student experiences, frustrations  

Several students from across U of T’s faculties shared their experiences and frustrations with their graduate funding during the town hall. 

One student noted that some of the psychological trauma that they experience is related to “woefully inadequate” funding. 

A PhD student from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education expressed that the school administration seemed to “[pass] the buck” when questioned by student collectives about the graduate student funding situation. The student also questioned the transparency of how U of T spends its money and its funding priorities around capital projects, especially during the pandemic.  

Several PhD students in music described their program’s funding as very low. They mentioned that they had to work jobs on top of their graduate studies, which has become very difficult due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They also noted that they had to take out loans in addition to their paid jobs to bridge the gaps in their funding.

A master’s student in public policy said that, while they might get some scholarships of $1,000 or $2,000, it almost feels like nothing in comparison to the cost of the program. 

Katona wrote that, in addition to these concerns, COVID-19 has exposed several pressing issues with U of T’s funding packages, including that they have a negative impact on degree completion and that they cause “increased vulnerability of racialized and international students.” 

COVID-19 has impacted the rental market in Toronto, but living costs remain high. In the GTA, a one-bedroom apartment is, on average, $1,417 a month. A single room in a home is around $1,000. Living costs such as utilities, food, and transportation can total more than $500 a month. 

Surveys and data 

According to Li, the SGS is open-minded to hearing out student concerns. 

“[It’s] actually offered a forum for which we can present this data and advocate for increases in funding at the faculty levels at monthly meetings with the deans of all the faculties,” Li said during the event.

Li mentioned that the UTGSU is planning on disseminating campus-wide surveys throughout the faculties, obtaining the data, and presenting it to the SGS. The UTGSU’s goal is to raise funding to at least an acceptable level in different faculties so that students do not suffer from issues caused by a lack of funds. The hope is to harmonize funding within and across faculties, but the challenge is to address the diversity of in-program requirements. 

This method apparently worked with the Temerty Faculty of Medicine, which increased funding for graduate students by 10 per cent. This bump ensured students would be able to live above the poverty line.

Harmonizing 

Katona acknowledged that programs have diverse requirements. However, regardless of the program’s exact dimensions, the plan is to bring funding up to a livable amount. She also noted that there is a plan to adjust funding from year to year to account for things like inflation and increased costs of living. 

When asked if new funding packages would take into account other things like transit and supplies, Katona wrote that the UTGSU would look into the matter.

While this initiative is in its early stages, Katona wrote that the UTGSU will continue to support students by relaying their concerns to the administration. “[It is] so vitally important that this is a collaborative effort,” she explained. “We need the input of student leaders across various departments that can speak best to the challenges that [are] faced within their program.”