The grad student reality

In 2011 the Graduate Student Society (GSS) conducted a survey that looked at a variety of different aspects of graduate life.  They found that the median gross yearly income was $18,000 a year including income from work off-campus. Back in 2000 Jon Driver (then Dean of Grad Studies now Vice President of Academics) conducted a similar survey and found the average graduate income was $20,000, including work off-campus. Let’s break this down for a moment and check the numbers displayed in the figure below.

A breakdown of a reasonable budget over time showing the effects of inflation and tuition increases, for a typical grad student.

The breakdown of costs for grads given the current economic situation as they change through time.

Fact: the typical gross income of a grad student has not significantly changed since 2000 [Driver, 2000; GSS survey, 2011]

Fact: Yearly tuition has increased from $2,304.00 in 2000-2001 to $5,186.40 for 2014-2015 [SFU Tuition Fees, 1965-66 to 2010-11].

Fact:  Total fees are increasing year after year (2010-2011: $1,178.15; 2014-2015: $1,423.83) [SFU Tuition Fees, 1965-66 to 2010-11]

Fact: The cost of food and shelter has increased significantly over the last 10 years [Canadian Price Index 2000 -2014; Driver 2000; GSS Survey, 2011]

The reality is that grad students have been taking a cut to their bottom line every year since 2000. This is not sustainable. After tuition is paid, a typical grad student only has about $1000/month to cover, rent, utilities, food, and all the other unavoidable costs of living. Graduate students have nowhere left to to cut except for their food budgets, which will continue to shrink well below their already unhealthy level of ~$50 /week. If graduate students can’t afford to pay their tuition bills by the 2nd week of the semester, SFU charges them interest at 26.8% APR.

The shrinking graduate student budget also has significant negative consequences for research at the University. More students are being forced to look off campus for work to make ends meet, which inevitably impacts on their research productivity. In departments where supervisors desire to match stipends with the increasing cost of living, supervisors are forced to dig deeper and deeper into their research grants in order to fund their students.

Throughout much of the country, there is a consensus that 10 hours per week for 2 semesters a year is a reasonable cap on the amount of time graduate students should spend on teaching related duties. In Ontario, this is often referred to as the “10 hour rule.” At SFU, graduate students typically spend 20-30 hours per week on teaching related duties. This discrepancy has a significant effect on research, with many graduate students unable to make significant progress on their degrees when completing a typical 5.17 or 6.17 base unit appointment.

To solve this problem, TSSU believes that teaching related income should increase to account for both tuition increases and cost of living increases. This will stop the shrinking food budgets of graduate students, allow faculty supervisors to devote more of their research grants to items beyond stipends, and provide some measure of stability to our members. A stable funding situation benefits SFU by helping to attract new grad students. After all, why would anyone take a grad school offer at a university where they will be asked to do more and get less funding?

Additional challenges faced by members with children

Are you a TSSU member with children? Did you know TSSU members have access to money meant to offset the cost of childcare? Every year SFU puts $50,000 into a bursary that grad students with children can apply for. However, the money is not getting distributed to the families that need it.

Here is the problem. Since 2002, 42% of graduate students who apply for the Childcare Bursary are denied and must appeal the decision. Although the collective agreement explains how this money is to be distributed, the SFU bursary office applies the usual bursary rules which prevent many applicants from accessing these funds.

Since the inception of the Childcare Bursary, over $250,000 has been kept out of the hands of parents due to the obstacles of the bursary system. TSSU has been trying to remedy the Childcare Bursary for over a decade. We remain committed to finding a solution which fulfills the original mandate of the bursary: to put money in the hands of TSSU members who are parents to help offset their childcare costs.

Some departments purposefully punish their graduate students

TSSU has heard been told by several departments that they need to cut off access to teaching work for graduate students in order to convince those students to graduate. Since cutting off students directly would violate the Collective Agreement gains we made in the priority system in the last round of bargaining, these departments have resorted to many tricks to prevent graduate students from accessing work.

One department in Applied Sciences went so far as to claim that ALL Master’s students in one of their programs were ineligible for TA work. Several other departments have begun requiring that graduate students submit a resume, cover letter and go for an interview with the professor for every course they apply to TA for. In large departments, a graduate student would then need to go to as many as 20 interviews to ensure they received a job. When graduate students don’t apply for all the jobs in these departments, the department can then arrange the appointments to ensure the students they want to “punish” for not yet finishing their degree are denied work.

TSSU recognizes that many departments have taken the priority system seriously and have worked hard to ensure their graduate students get first access to work, in line with the Collective Agreement. In aggregate, however, the new priority system has not resulted in an increase in work going to graduate students. This makes it clear that additional steps are needed to buttress the priority system to ensure that spirit of the agreement, to ensure graduate student access to TA work, is upheld.

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