Board OK's budget despite student pushback

By Adela Talbot
May 08, 2014

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Western’s Board of Governors approved the university’s 2014-15 budget April 25, despite calls from graduate students to address what they see as inequities and inconsistencies in the way they are funded.

“It’s an unfortunate reflection of the reality that our universities are no longer our universities,” said Kevin Godbout, a PhD candidate in Modern Languages and Literatures and president of the Society of Graduate Students (SOGS) at Western.

“Students pay the largest contribution into the operating budgets of institutions, but we have absolutely no say,” he continued.

Godbout joined a dozen or so graduate students at the meeting, filling the gallery as a demonstration and silent protest of how Western addresses graduate student funding. A number of other graduate students, not admitted to the room, echoed the sentiments outside with placards.

The students delivered a petition with 800 signatures in support of a cut to graduate student fees, and an implementation of post-residency fees, which are a reduction in tuition, once a student begins working on a thesis.

Despite the pushback, the board passed the budget.

“Nowhere in there was a discussion about the actual values of scholarship that I think me and my colleagues are here to reenact. No real discussion was had about tuition fees, beyond tuition making up for some shortfalls. We, in our poverty, have to be the university they refuse to run, and we have to do it ourselves, without other resources,” Godbout continued.

But Carol Beynon, acting vice-provost for the School of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies, noted it is important to keep in mind PhD students are funded for four years for tuition and receive an extra $12,000 a year guaranteed income from the university. And that’s the minimum funding a doctoral student at Western will see.

“Tuition plus $12,000 would be about $19,000 per year but we have very few students making just that. A TA-ship (a teaching assistant position) is worth $42.10 x 240 hours. And we have a number of students who win major awards and scholarships, worth anywhere from $40-50,000 a year,” Beynon explained.

The average funding package at Western for a doctoral student is nearly $28,500, she added. That is the second largest funding package offered to PhDs in Canada, according to the latest U15 data, with the University of Alberta offering an average of $30,926.

“I’m not saying we don’t have students who don’t have a really hard time with money, because there certainly are a lot of students who do. I know what it would be like if I had a family and was trying live on $25,000 a year and had to pay tuition,” Beynon continued.

“I’m not saying students have a lot of money, but they’re also students at the time and devoting their time to studying, and that’s what we’ve tried to address with our funding model. I don’t think its possible to give them enough money to be totally comfortable but we’re trying to alleviate the burden.”

Marking the final year of the current four-year budget cycle, the 2014-15 budget shows an increase in operating revenue of 3.1 per cent to $679.2 million and an expenditure increase of 3.9 per cent to $689.2 million, for an in-year deficit of $10 million. That in-year deficit is attributed to $38 million in one-time allocations for priority items. Despite that, Western still projects an operating reserve of $32 million.

The budget contains across-the-board tuition increases.

Incoming domestic students face tuition hikes of 1.5 per cent for PhD and Category 1 masters students, 3 per cent for first-entry undergraduates and 5 per cent for Engineering, Law, Medical/Dentistry and Category 2 students.

Incoming international students face tuition hikes of 4 per cent for PhD and Category 1 masters students, 5 per cent for HBA students, 6 per cent for Category 2 masters students and 8 per cent for first-entry undergrads, excluding Management and Organizational Students student who will see a 12 per cent increase.

Ignoring the voice of the graduate students in this circumstance, means ignoring the role they play in pursuing excellence, added Jessica Riley, a PhD candidate in Western’s Centre for the Study of Theory and Criticism, who sat with Godbout on an ad hoc committee for post-residency fees.

“Doctoral scholars publish and have to travel. We are supposed to present our excellence to institutions that have never heard of Western, but we don’t have the funds,” Riley said. “I’d say it’s very indicative that neither the university president nor the vice-provost acknowledged their students (at the meeting).

“The people whose tuition supports the university aren’t seen as speaking subjects.”

Anthropology professor Regna Darnell, a faculty board member, indicated at the meeting she agreed with the concerns of graduate students.

“We’re talking about increasing our research excellence and increasing the stature of Western nationally and internationally. We’re talking about increasing the number of graduate students and we’re not talking about increasing the living wage,” she said.

“I’m in Social Sciences and Humanities, and it’s tough out there. I would be very happy if the provost, or someone else from administration, would be willing address some of the humane implications of these matters,” she continued.

Darnell added it’s time to acknowledge it takes more than four years to complete a doctoral degree, during which a student receives funding.

Most PhDs at Western, according to U15 data, complete their degrees between 3.5 and 5 years, Beynon said. And in the event they take longer, other funding avenues are available to students, among them scholarships, grants and funding that is at the discretion of academic supervisors.

“This institution, more than any other I know of, has devoted a disproportionately large proportion of operating dollars to support students, especially grad students,” Western President Amit Chakma said at the meeting.

He explained $55 million is devoted to graduate student support, a figure nearly representing the base operating budget of the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry.

That said, the university could stand to do more, Chakma continued. But looking for money in a limited budget isn’t a sustainable solution. The solution is tapping all potential funding resources, including government grants and Tri-Council funding, and encouraging and supporting faculty and students who apply.

“If we are not able to tap into all those other resources available to us, with the demand for resources, we won’t be able to catch up. We need to get more students to come to us with scholarships,” Chakma explained.

Godbout cited the School for Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies as “one avenue for engaging the board further.”

“We need to convince as many allies – and potential allies – as possible to engage this issue publicly,” he said.

SOGS’s next step includes putting together all the information of the campaign, assessing the result of the board action, informing the membership and devising a new campaign to “continue the good work to bring post-residency fees, better funding and decreased tuition fees to Western,” Godbout said.

This story originally appeared in the May 8, 2014 edition of Western News.               


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