Canadian PhD and postgraduate students plan mass walkout over low pay

Ottawa scientists call for increased funding for undergraduates and postdocs at rally in 2022Credit: The Canadian Press / Alamy

Graduate and postdoctoral fellows at dozens of universities and research institutions across Canada plan to walk out on May 1 in protest at government-funded salaries that have remained unchanged since 2003.

“Student pay hasn’t increased in 20 years, while there’s been 50% inflation over that same period,” says Sarah Laframboise, a PhD student in biochemistry at the University of Ottawa and executive director of Support Our Science, a student-led campaign group that organized the demonstration.

The federal government scholarships provide an annual stipend of C$17,500 (US$12,800) for master’s students, $23,000 or $35,000 for doctoral students, and $45,000 for postdoctoral fellowships. This leaves many researchers in a precarious financial position, says Laframboise. A survey she and her colleagues conducted of more than 1,000 Canadian graduate students found that nearly half of those surveyed either often struggled to make ends meet or had to make sacrifices to afford the necessities, and 30% were considered leaving their studies due to financial difficulties1.

“The government is losing talent during a labor shortage because it’s not investing in research in Canada,” said Sami-Jane Tremblay, president of the Quebec Union of Students, which organized the walkout at six institutions in Montreal. “People are leaving research or going to the US or Europe where the pay is better.”

Canada’s Science Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne did not respond to a request for comment from Naturethe news team of.

Salary increase overdue

Support our science has three main requests. First, he wants master’s stipends to increase in value to $25,900 (a 48% increase), postdoctoral stipends to increase to $59,200, and the two levels of doctoral stipends to be equalized at $35,000. Second, he wants a 50% increase in the number of scholarships funded each year and doubling the number of scholarships. Finally, he wants the amount of federal research grants to be increased by 50% to allow faculty to increase the pay of undergraduates and graduate students who do not have a federal grant. The organization says these requests are in line with the recommendations of the government’s own advisory panel on the research support system, which published its report in March.

Although only a small fraction of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows in Canada are funded through federal grants and scholarships, Laframboise says Support Our Science has made a strategic decision to focus on this funding. Federal scholarship levels are taken as an unofficial indicator of what students should be paid by provinces, universities and other organizations that fund undergraduate and graduate students, she adds.

“Instead of any other system for setting scholarship standards, universities tend to follow what the federal government provides and set their scholarships a little lower,” she says. The hope is that the increase in federal funding will generate momentum to raise wages across the system.

Helping students

It’s not just students who will protest. Mark Johnson is a biologist at the University of Toronto and helped organize the walk there. He has seen firsthand the effects of scholarship funding cuts. “I was one of the first to receive these federal grants in 2003,” he says. “And 20 years later, they’re still getting paid the same amount.”

Johnson says that has made it difficult to recruit students in recent years. His university has had to set its own scholarships higher to cope with the rising cost of living, but many postgraduates are still struggling.

Universities also recognize the needs of their postgraduate scholars. “[Our] continued success in attracting the best students is based on our ability to provide competitive financial support to graduate students,” a spokesperson for McGill University in Montreal said in a statement. They added that in the 2022-2023 academic year, the university increased its graduate student support funding pool by $7 million, to nearly $28 million, to help “keep McGill’s graduate student financial support competitive.” .

Support Our Science has been advocating for higher pay for the past year. Last August, the organization sent an open letter with almost 7,000 signatures to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. In interviews last year on CBC radio and at the Canadian Science Policy Conference in Ottawa in November, Minister Champagne indicated he supported the request and hinted the government would act on it soon. But Canada’s 2023 federal budget, outlined in March, made no mention of any changes to funding levels for research grants and fellowships.

Walks are currently planned at 46 universities and research institutes across the country, and Laframboise expects thousands of people to take part. In Ottawa, participants will march to Parliament Hill, while in Toronto they will gather outside the constituency office of Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland. In Montreal, the researchers will join a major union march that takes place every year on May 1. “Together we will be a greater force,” says Tremblay.

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