Graduate students at McMaster University, who say they are finding it difficult to cope financially, have launched a campaign to press the institution to increase the funding given to them.
Graduate students, joined by faculty, staff, and concerned community members, made the call in an open letter to the graduate council, which includes more than 40 members.
In the letter, they said the regulations set out by the graduate council guarantee all full-time graduate students at McMaster a minimum of just $13,500 per year (the current “floor”) above whatever their rate of tuition is.
“It’s time to raise the floor; full-time graduate students deserve better,” the students wrote in the letter.
The graduate students pointed to Statistics Canada data, which highlights that the low-income cut-off for single-person households in a city the size of Hamilton in 2019 was $21,899.
By my experience living here almost two years, I would say you at least need like $25,000 … to get an apartment, have enough money for food and other expenses. Nothing fancy, just basic human needs.– Daniil Gnetov, international student at McMaster University
The average cost of a one-bedroom apartment in Hamilton was $1,559 per month as of January 2022, which means the minimum funding floor of $13,500 per year barely covers the cost of just eight months of housing, the letter continued.
“This leaves most graduate students struggling to make ends meet, taking on other jobs or living off of credit cards, student loans, or help from friends and family, all while the University reports hundreds of millions of dollars in excess revenues,” it said.
Daniil Gnetov — who is in his second year of a master’s program, before embarking on his PhD studies — says he first realized he would have an issue covering his expenses on arrival in Canada from Russia in January 2021.
According to Gnetov, the immigration officer was reluctant to let him into the country or issue his study permit.
“He wasn’t convinced that the amount of money the university gave me was enough to cover my needs,” Gnetov told CBC Hamilton.
“I was lucky that I had some savings … and that allowed me to pass through border control.”
Gnetov says the immigration officer was right, because when he got into the country, he discovered that the university funding was far from adequate.
“It doesn’t really cover rent for a single bedroom apartment. I had to rent a room instead,” he said.
“By my experience, living here almost two years, I would say you at least need like $25,000 … to get an apartment, have enough money for food and other expenses. Nothing fancy, just basic human needs.”
Gnetov says coming from Russia as an undergraduate student, he’s “just used to not having enough money all the time. It’s just something you get used to.”
‘It’s just generally a very hard situation’
But Gnetov says he just wants to be able to cover all his basic needs so that he can focus on his studies and not be in a constant state of worry.
“Without enough funding you can’t rent a good place, you don’t have enough money to buy food,” he said.
“It’s really like a toll on [your] mental health … it’s just generally a very hard situation.”
Shalen Prado, who is entering her fourth year as a PhD candidate, says with the $13,500 floor she has to pick up as many jobs as she can while still having a full-time job of being a graduate student.
“The 13,500 floor, which McMaster says is the minimum amount of funding, is really what most people get,” Prado told CBC Hamilton.
“They say that it’s supposed to fill in the gaps of your basic needs, so it’s supposed to cover your housing, your food, your transportation, your clothing … You’re given a TA [Teacher’s Assistant] job and that gives you a source of income … but with all of these sources of income, that’s often still not enough to pay all of your bills.”
But Prado says graduate students are only allowed to work 505 hours per year at McMaster.
“So, you can’t even get that much more work to keep paying your bills. You have to get work elsewhere, outside of McMaster,” she said.
‘Somewhere near $20,000 would be reasonable’
Taking inflation and the cost of living into account, Prado says “somewhere near $20,000 would be reasonable” for someone in her position.
“I looked at the inflation calculator because this number of $13,500, I believe, was established about a decade ago, so let’s say 2012. If that’s correct, then that with inflation should be somewhere around $16,000,” she said.
“But for me personally, my rent is $17,400 a year, which is considered reasonable for Hamilton. So, I think if McMaster is claiming that the floor amount of money is supposed to be paying your basic needs in addition to your job, then I think $20,000 would be reasonable.”
International students were misled: CUPE Local
Cupe Local 3906 represents teaching assistant, sessional instructors and postdoctoral fellows at McMaster University. President Chris Fairweather says the funding floor set by the university’s graduate council has not changed in a very long time.
Fairweather says international students have also been misled about the funding provided by the university.
“Some of the people who reached out to us were really concerned because they told us that in their offers of admission, McMaster told them that the cost of living in Hamilton is only $12,500 a year and that their funding guarantee was at least $13,500 a year over the cost of their tuition,” Fairweather said.
According to Fairweather, the university, without explicitly saying so, was presenting the idea that the funding would be enough for a person to live off in a city like Hamilton.
“Who could live off of $12,500 a year?,” Fairweather said.
CBC News put Fairweather’s question to McMaster University but got no response at the time this article was published.
Fairweather says the letter went public on July 7 and they are still in the process of collecting signatures.
He says the graduate council won’t meet again until the fall, and they do not expect they would formally receive the letter and have an opportunity to talk about it as a group until then.
Income can come from multiple streams, university says
The chair of the graduate council has not responded to CBC’s request for comment, but a spokesperson for McMaster University says the income of graduate students can come from multiple streams.
“For some revenue streams the payments are standard across the university,” public relations manager Wade Hemsworth wrote in an email to CBC News. “This would be the case for graduate students who are also employed as teaching assistants.”
Hemsworth says the stipend graduate students receive for their university research can vary quite a bit, adding that this is determined by the type of research that is being done and the funding sources for the research.
“In many cases the funding is from external granting councils or other funding agencies,” he said.