Graduate Students of Canada Collective’s Appeal to the Canadian Government

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IMPORTANT UPDATE: Please also sign and share the House of Commons Petition, sponsored by NDP MP Lindsay Mathyssen.

To the Federal Government,


The Graduate Students of Canada Collective is a movement of graduate students across Canada concerned about government and university responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the past two months, graduate students have been faced with mounting socio-economic precarity as a direct result of the pandemic, while feeling increasingly left out of institutional and governmental efforts to provide relief. We urgently call on the government to implement comprehensive and effective measures to support the wellbeing and economic security of all graduate students across Canada.

Graduate students have lost access to Research Assistantships, Fellowships, current and future academic jobs due to funding and hiring freezes resulting from COVID-19. Further, presenting work at academic conferences, publishing papers, teaching, and other experience necessary to pursuing academic careers is far less accessible with the pandemic. We are being urged to find impossibly creative ways to build skills and demonstrate our worth, while concomitantly scrambling to pay for food and shelter. The CESB of $1,250/month is inadequate to support us in these endeavours. 

Overall, graduate tuition fees across the country were either unchanged or increased over the past year. This increase ranges from 1% to 10%.  International graduate students’ fees were up by 4.4%, with yearly tuition costs averaging at $17,744. This means that the average cost for international graduate students’ summer tuition is around $5,900. This is a very significant expense when the regular sources of income these students rely on are unavailable, when they have little to no savings to fall back on, and when they do not have access to student loans and excluded from the broader range of funding opportunities available to domestic students, as well as the emergency funding offered by the government.

Graduate students have lost access to most of the resources and services which their tuition fees pay for. With the closure of physical libraries and archives, many research materials are now unavailable to us. Labs, offices, studios, and study spaces on campus, where a major part of our work is performed, are now inaccessible, further impeding our research. While many of our supervisors have made themselves as available as possible through remote means, their ability to meet with us and discuss our work has also been impacted, especially at a time when they themselves have been struggling to adapt classes and lessons to an online platform as fast as they can. Remote work represents further costs and difficulties for many of us, who do not have a home office, or access to a quiet space in which they could work effectively, and who do not have access to the higher-end internet connections and other equipment necessary to work in decent conditions.

Graduate students attend school year-round and carry academic responsibilities throughout the summer months. Unlike other students who may have summers off to work, most graduate students are required to conduct research, work on a thesis or dissertation, produce publications, complete academic course requirements, prepare for exams, and fulfil additional academic requirements from May-August. To ensure the health and safety of all, graduate students have had to halt their fieldwork as they are unable to access research sites and participants. We are not free to find full-time work over the summer, even if it were available, since our graduate programs and departments ca the number of hours we are allowed to work while enrolled in our research programs. 

Many graduate students who are providers or carers for family domestically or abroad also find themselves split between their studies, their work, and their responsibility to provide care and support for their families. As such, their ability to devote their time and energy to their work and their research has been greatly affected. The anxiety caused by this precarious situation, as well as the efforts exerted to alleviate it, greatly impact graduate students’ ability to make progress in their research. Under these strenuous conditions, physical and mental health struggles have deepened and have had greater consequences for students’ abilities to provide for themselves and their families, let alone advance their research. 

These numerous factors may eventually cause delays in the completion of graduate degrees, engendering further financial concerns and, in the case of international students, potential visa issues. In the worst cases, they endanger graduate students’ ability to complete their degrees altogether, as they might be pushed to decide between paying tuition and paying rent. Universities across Canada may eventually lose international graduate students, who due to their inability to support themselves financially this summer may instead decide to discontinue their studies or go back to their home countries for socio-economic reasons.


Current relief measures are insufficient to avert the crisis faced by graduate students across Canada:

Most graduate students do not qualify for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB): they are not eligible unless they have earned at least $5,000 in the last year, and are currently unemployed as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic. These criteria are particularly exclusionary, given that many graduate students rely on campus-based employment and bursaries. The majority of such contracts ended on April 30th, leaving these graduate students unable to find new employment over the summer. This very particular situation makes them ineligible for CERB. Similarly, the limits on hours worked by graduate students also exclude us from accessing EI benefits.

The Canada Emergency Student Benefit (CESB) fails to support every graduate student effectively: The CESB of $1,250/month, raised to $2,000/month for students with disabilities or who have dependents, is aimed at closing the gaps left by the CERB. However, this benefit falls short of actually meeting our needs. Many graduate students are responsible for paying rent, utilities, groceries and other living costs in addition to tuition every semester, including in the summer. In a devastated labour market, with jobs few and far between, $1,250/month is not enough to cover the cost of living. International students, most of whom are not permanent residents, are largely excluded from the CESB. This means that most graduate students continue to be forced to choose between paying rent and paying tuition, as $1,250/month is not enough to live on. 

Piecemeal relief measures leave glaring gaps. Bursaries and emergency funding provide very limited relief for some students’ most immediate and pressing financial concerns. However, they do not and cannot address the majority’s socio-economic hardships. While a bursary might prevent a graduate student from getting evicted in May or June, they must still find a way to pay full summer tuition fees and cover their essential needs for the remainder of the summer without access to any kind of employment or longer-term financial support.

There is still very little information available on the promised 116,000 jobs, placements, and other training opportunities. This uncertainty means that many graduate students do not know if they qualify for such positions, nor whether positions will be available in their home community. Further, the Canada Summer Jobs Program excludes many graduate students because they are over the age of 30 years. It also excludes all international students. 

Taking a Leave of Absence is not the answer. Some graduate students are being told to simply take an official Leave of Absence from their studies until the pandemic has passed. Such a disruption in learning and research-related activities would be detrimental to many students’ ability to complete their programs. Further, international students do not have this option as most student visas require full-time enrolment in a post-secondary program.


The Canada Student Service Grant, which is the only government-provided relief available to international students who do not have permanent residency, further intensifies their precarity. They are being told to volunteer in high-risk front line placements, putting not only them, but also their families at risk, while doing nothing to address their immediate financial hardship (as the benefits from the grant will only contribute to their Fall education costs).

 

We therefore call on the Government of Canada to:

A. Support all post-secondary institutions across Canada, in collaboration with provincial governments, in their efforts to support their graduate students financially and academically by:

Waiving Summer 2020 tuition fees for all graduate students across Canada. This would allow graduate students to spend their limited savings and any income they manage to earn on basic living costs including food, utilities, rent, childcare, and other monthly expenses.

Extending timelines for “academic progress” by:

  • Considering Winter 2020 and Summer 2020 as one semester for the purpose of calculating student progress against degree requirements, and
  • Extending normal and maximum program duration for all graduate students who were registered in Winter 2020 by two additional semesters and extending all students’ guaranteed funding packages for the same additional two semesters. This would allow students to make up for the time and productivity that is being lost due to the pandemic, while ensuring that universities do not penalize students for circumstances beyond their control.

Providing rent relief programs that cover all units of university-owned and university-administered student housing from May-August 2020 and reassessing the need to extend the program into Fall 2020. Rent relief in student housing would particularly impact international students, many of whom are struggling to pay both rent and tuition to universities without access to housing alternatives.

B. Immediately create an emergency benefit package for international students that provides the same financial benefits as other post-secondary students and recent graduates. International students have been the hardest hit by job loss and the current economic crisis because many usually work on campus in jobs that no longer exist. In addition, international students pay between two and three times the tuition of domestic graduate students and many are living far from family and community networks who might otherwise provide support.

C. Work with Provincial Governments to create and implement residential rent relief. A number of Premiers are calling on the Government of Canada to implement residential rent relief to avert a looming homelessness crisis due to mounting debt among millions of people across Canada. We join the Premiers in their call. Many graduate students are among those at risk of homelessness, particularly students who are Black, Indigenous, and people of colour; students who have disabilities; and students who are international students.


The Graduate Students of Canada Collective.

Online Petitions by Graduate Students Cross-Canada