Graduate students supports needed during COVID-19 crisis

Graduate students supports needed during COVID-19 crisis
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Addressed to Federal Government, Provincial Governments, Canada’s Research Funding Councils, and University senior administrators:

The COVID-19 pandemic has posed unprecedented challenges to graduate students across the country. We recognize the steps taken by both the federal and provincial governments, and post-secondary institutions, to protect not just graduate students, but all students, faculty, and staff. These measures include the six-month suspension of student loan repayment and the expansion of the Canada Summer Jobs program. These measures are important steps towards redressing the financial burden on students. However, we would like to emphasize that graduate students are facing additional challenges that have not been addressed.

We, the undersigned, want to draw your attention to these unique issues that graduate students are facing as the result of the ongoing crisis, and ask that Federal Government, Provincial Governments, Canada’s Research Funding Councils, and University senior administrators take immediate actions to address these issues.

Fully-funded tuition waiver for graduate students

For many graduate students, the COVID-19 pandemic has restricted access to resources that may be essential to progress through their academic/research requirements. Despite this lack of access to academic resources, many institutions are still requiring graduate students to pay spring/summer tuition fees. At the same time, graduate students who typically work to financially support themselves have lost job opportunities or are facing great uncertainty with respect to their summer jobs (including teaching assistantships, research assistantships, Contract Instructor positions, among others) in light of this pandemic. Additionally, many graduate students will not benefit from the expansion of the Canada Summer Jobs program, which excludes international students and students over 30 – both highly represented demographics in graduate studies across the country.

In the face of this unparalleled economic hardship, it is imperative that graduate students are not made financially responsible for facilities, services, resources and supervisions that they have limited to no access to. As such, we ask all Canadian universities to effectively waive all spring and summer tuition fees for graduate students who have to remain registered in their program during these unprecedented and challenging times. We ask the federal and provincial governments to work with post-secondary institutions to subsidize the waiver of spring/summer 2020 tuition fees for graduate students through increased public funding.

Academic progression and time to completion extension

Research activities are significantly affected by the mandated physical-distancing directives. This includes the inability to perform laboratory and fieldwork (including in-person research data collection via interviews), limited access to resources (e.g., library, full access to online software/platforms off-campus), and connecting with international networks due to the travel restrictions. Furthermore, during this time, graduate students have restricted access to supervisors and committees, both of which are essential for the continuation and completion of their studies. Moreover, many graduate students are active carers for dependents or have now become the key source of childcare in their households. They may no longer have the time or uninterrupted space available in the coming months to dedicate to their academic work. These new realities will most likely require a lengthening of project timelines. We ask Canadian universities to grant an extension to the time of completion for all graduate students.

Extension to scholarships by Tri-council and other funding agencies

The expectation of progressing through the academic requirements well, while dealing with the stress and worry about timely completion of academic work during this crisis is counterproductive. Such expectations compromise the health and wellbeing of people dependent on these sources of income. We ask that Tri-Council and other funding agencies extend current scholarships and fellowships while guaranteeing researchers’ current incomes. Doing so demonstrates material support and positively contributes to crisis-management for graduate students during these difficult and uncertain times.

To mitigate this situation in fairness and care, we ask Canada’s Tri-councils (the Natural Sciences & Engineering Research Council (NSERC); the Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council (SSHRC); and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), and universities to provide fully-funded extensions to scholarships for all graduate students disadvantaged by the current crisis. We have a duty of care to all who work within the sector to prioritise individual wellbeing above all.

Taking immediate and necessary measures to respond to the needs of graduate students is a responsible fulfilment of academia’s ultimate purpose.