April 12, 2023
To: Joy Johnson, President
Jeff Derksen, Dean and Associate Provost of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies; Dugan O’Neil, Vice-President, Research and International; Graduate Student Society; SFU Board of Governors
We write this letter to call on the administration at Simon Fraser University for a rapid and meaningful increase in real graduate student funding levels across all units at the university. As Graduate Chairs who work with graduate students every day, we have witnessed the deep and growing shortcoming in graduate student funding, as well as the distress this condition is causing among students. We have been asked to manage a funding environment in which most graduate students must live with an income that falls far below what is required for a dignified quality of life in our region, which generates severe funding inequities among graduate students, which leaves international students especially vulnerable, and which routinely and increasingly sees us lose the most competitive applicants to other institutions with better funding packages.
The already high cost of living in Metro Vancouver has risen dramatically in recent years and months. Vancouver’s average monthly rental price for an unfurnished, one-bedroom unit rose to $2,227 in March, an increase of $400 since January, 2022. Inflation is running at around 7% and food prices are up 10% year over year. On top of this, SFU tuition and ancillary fees cost graduate students roughly $7600 per year.
In October, Graduate Chairs were sent information on average funding levels from all sources (scholarships, RAships, and TAships) for graduate students across the university. The data was helpful in that it allowed for comparison across units and faculties, but also deeply troubling in the broader perspective it provides on the utterly inadequate financial support with which SFU graduate students must make ends meet.
The information suggests that SFU graduate students receive an average of $21,594 annually from the university. Clearly this average is skewed by a small number of “high-earning” graduate students who do much better than most, and one must allow for cases in which students pursuing graduate study also have full-time employment elsewhere (and therefore income which is not captured in the data). But one must also allow for the fact that the university claws back the $7600 per year in tuition, which brings the average total funding figure down to just under $14,000 per year.
It is also necessary to point out that if $14,000 for living expenses per graduate student is an average figure, then many graduate students are making much less than this amount per year from university sources. The situation of international students, who in most cases cannot access competitive funding sources like SSHRC, NSRC, etc., and face limits to pursuing off-campus employment, is likely much more serious (but we are seemingly unable to access data solely for this population from the university).
There are two immediate and very serious causes for concern here. The first and most obvious is ethical: as an institution we simply aren’t guaranteeing graduate students dignified levels of financial support during their studies. This impacts their well-being, but also their performance in our institution. The second concern is that the university will ultimately be the biggest loser if these funding levels persist or worsen, since we will lose out on the most talented graduate students when they opt to study at institutions where they are better supported.
To its credit, the university has acknowledged that something needs to be done about this situation. In its recent Implementation Plan for the Strategic Research Plan, the university commits to “study ways to shift our limited resources to better support research graduate students,” promising a “study of tuition waivers, scholarships and bursaries.” The university also commits to “work with SFU Advancement, provincial and federal funding agencies to grow resources available for graduate student support both for existing graduate students and to grow our research graduate student body” and, last but not least, within a year, to “set a university-wide minimum funding level for PhD students.”
We call on the university to immediately accept the demands made by graduate students through the Graduate Student Society, including:
- A guaranteed minimum offer of $32,000 (after tuition deductions) with annual increases, for all research-based graduate students;
- A tuition freeze, reduction or waiver;
- Paying International Student Health Fees for affected graduate students and their families;
- Infrastructure repurposing and development targeted to the provision of graduate student housing that is linked to 30% of graduate income (after tuition);
- Pay and benefits for all graduate student research assistants which is equivalent to that of teaching assistants;
- Ensuring access to affordable food and groceries on or near the campuses; · Ensuring all practicums are paid, and waiving practicum and co-op fees.
- Enda Brophy, Associate Professor and Graduate Chair, Communication
- Peter Dickinson, Professor and Graduate Chair, Contemporary Arts
- Kate Hennessy, Associate Professor and Graduate Chair, Interactive Arts and Technology
- Lindsey A. Freeman, Associate Professor and Graduate Chair, Sociology and Anthropology
- Gerardo Otero, Professor and Graduate Chair, International Studies
- Coleman Nye, Assistant Professor and Graduate Chair, Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies
- Evdoxios Doxiadis, Associate Professor and Graduate Chair, History
- Kirsten Zickfeld, Distinguished Professor of Climate Science and Graduate Chair, Geography
- Scott Steedman, Lecturer and Graduate Chair, Publishing
- Ann Chinnery, Associate Professor, Academic Co-coordinator, Master’s Programs in Equity Studies in Education, Faculty of Education
- Mark Fettes, Associate Professor and Academic Coordinator, Master of Education in Educational Practice, Faculty of Education
- Celeste Snowber, Professor and Academic Co-coordinator, Graduate programs in Arts Education, Faculty of Education
- Jeannie Kerr, Associate Professor and Academic Co-coordinator, Graduate programs in Educational Theory and Practice, Faculty of Education
- Danièle Moore, Professor and Academic Coordinator, Graduate programs in Languages, Cultures and Literacies (French), Faculty of Education
- Sean Chorney, Associate Professor and Academic Coordinator, Master’s program in Secondary Mathematics Education, Faculty of Education
- Kumari Beck, Associate Professor and Academic Co-coordinator, Master’s programs in Equity Studies in Education, Faculty of Education
- Yumiko Murai, Assistant Professor, Academic Coordinator, Master’s programs in Educational Technology and Learning Design, Faculty of Education
- Lynn Fels, Professor and Academic Co-coordinator, Graduate programs in Arts Education, Faculty of Education
- Engida Gebre, Associate Professor and Academic Coordinator, Doctoral program in Educational Technology and Learning Design, Faculty of Education
- Rina Zazkis, Professor and Academic Coordinator, Doctoral program in Mathematics Education, Faculty of Education
- Maureen Hoskyn, Associate Professor and Academic Co-coordinator, Graduate programs in Educational Psychology, Faculty of Education
- Gillian Smith, Lecturer and Academic Co-coordinator, Master’s programs in Counselling Psychology, Faculty of Education
- Brenda Davis, Lecturer and Associate Director, Community Graduate Programs in Education, Faculty of Education
- Eline de Rooij, Associate Professor and Graduate Chair, Department of Political Science
- Ralph Mistlberger, Professor and Graduate Chair, Department of Psychology
- Gaëlle Planchenault, Associate Professor and Graduate Chair, French
- Barbara Mitchell, Professor and Graduate Chair, Gerontology
- Jennifer Wang, Associate Professor and Graduate Chair, Philosophy
- Matthew Hussey, Associate Professor and Graduate Chair, English
- Igor Shinkar, Professor and Graduate Chair, Computing Science
- Anthony Perl, Professor and Graduate Chair, Urban Studies