Almost 300 graduate students and an MP from British Columbia have expressed support for a petition requesting that the federal government expand graduate students’ scholarships. Nick Fast, a PhD candidate in U of T’s Department of History, introduced the petition to the Canadian government, citing the rising costs of living in Canada and the static government funding for student scholarships. 

Rationale for the petition

The petition requests an “increase [in] the number and monetary amounts of Tri-Council scholarships” for graduate students and researchers. The Tri-Council funding agencies — the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), Natural Sciences and Engineering Council (NSERC), and Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) — promote research in a variety of fields, partially by providing grants to graduate students. 

The monetary amount and number of graduate student funding packages provided by CIHR, NSERC, and SSHRC have not increased since 2003. These organizations currently provide $17,500 per year for master’s students and $21,000 per year for PhD students. For 2022, the agencies allocated a total of 6000 master’s student awards, including 806 awards for University of Toronto master’s students.

This scholarship money is provided with the intention of covering graduate students’ costs, allowing them to concentrate on their research. According to Fast in an interview with The Varsity, these amounts are no longer enough and graduate student researchers are taking on additional jobs to cover the rising costs of living. Fast explained that, by increasing the number and monetary amount of scholarships, the Tri-Council could help students focus on their research and avoid “potentially putting their research in jeopardy because they are having to take on other responsibilities to live.”

Fast, who also serves as the graduate student committee chair for the Canadian Historical Association (CHA), explained that the petition grew out of an open letter drafted by CHA President Steven High to the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences. In the letter, High noted that funding levels currently fall below the poverty line and highlighted the “abysmal” success rate for students who receive SSHRC postdoctoral and doctoral fellowships. 

According to a CHA report, SSHRC only provides first-year or prospective PhD students up to four years of funding. However, only 10 per cent of doctoral students completed their PhD by the end of 4.25 years. High called on the Federation to join the CHA in demanding that the SSHRC increase scholarships “by at least 50 [per cent].” High also advocated for the government to increase the number of postdoctoral fellowships made available. 

Although High’s open letter only addressed SSHRC funding, Fast explained that his petition applies to all of the Tri-Council agencies. He hopes to connect with other graduate student groups, including students covered by NSERC and CIHR, while collecting signatures for the petition. 

Current support for the petition

Fast explained that the petition process first involves collecting enough signatures to create a petition through the government’s online petition portal. Then, the petitioner must receive support from an MP, who sponsors the petition during the signature-gathering process. If the petition receives enough signatures — in this case, at least 500 signatures — the MP will bring forward the petition and discuss the issue in the House of Commons. 

Fast explained that he decided to ask MP Bonita Zarrillo of Port Moody—Coquitlam in British Columbia to support the petition. In a written statement to The Varsity, Zarrillo highlighted the many students that live “at or below the poverty line,” noting that the cost of living in Canada is at “historic highs.” She explained that she decided to support the petition “as a way to lift up the voices of students and researchers who want the government to understand and to act.” 

Next steps

Providing more financial support to graduate students conducting research across the nation will benefit Canada for years to come, according to Fast. Fast explained that graduate students often continue working in academia and building on ideas from their master’s or doctorate programs even after completing their degrees. 

“Canada prides itself on producing some of the greatest research and innovation in the world. But if we’re not funding the graduate student levels to conduct that research, then we are essentially undercutting our own ability… [and] our own research capabilities,” said Fast. 

Since it opened for signature on February 15, 291 graduate students from nine different provinces and territories have signed the petition, as of March 5. The petition closes on April 16.