Written by Amanda Short, Saskatoon StarPhoenix. February 23, 2020
The union representing University of Saskatchewan graduate and postdoctoral workers is speaking against a proposed tuition hike headed for a vote by the school’s board of governors.
Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) Local 40004 represents all graduate students employed as teaching assistants, teaching fellows, student assistants and research assistants.
The university board of governors is set to vote on a tuition increase for graduate students during its March 23 and 24 meeting. The union released a statement last week saying the increases would put an “undue burden” on Local 40004 members.
If approved, tuition for thesis and project-based master’s and doctoral programs would increase by about 10 per cent per year over the next five years for domestic students. The differential rate paid by International students would increase by 6.9 per cent per year over the same period.
By 2024-25, domestic students would pay $2,287 per semester and international students $5,031. Currently, they pay $1,420 and $2,243, respectively.
Local 40004 president Joanne Ernst said the increases would only worsen an already difficult situation for graduate students.
“The main concern obviously is around financial stability, because these individuals are some of the most vulnerable in the university community,” she said.
If the proposed increase goes ahead, the union will take it into consideration in upcoming bargaining talks, Ernst added.
Currently, students make about $20 per hour in teaching assistant roles, with the bulk of most graduate student income coming from stipends generally paid for by scholarships and supervisor research funds. The minimum stipend level is set by each department.
“The vast majority of research is publicly-funded, and so if you’re essentially taking money from the graduate students, the stipend has to increase to compensate for that,” said Brandon Keith, a PhD candidate at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine. “But that stipend is coming from public research funds, so it’s essentially just shifting around money in a weird way.”
That $20 rate could only apply to a few hours of work a week, Keith said, adding he engages in activities like teaching undergraduate labs and marking papers 5-10 hours a week, resulting in roughly $100-200 in weekly income.
Using his own case as an example, Keith said he received approximately $21,700 from his stipend in 2018, working out to roughly $10.43 an hour for a 40 hour work week.
“It’s even less when you consider that around a quarter of that (stipend) goes to tuition,” Keith said. “So when you actually factor in the cost of tuition, cost of living, you don’t really have a lot of money leftover at the end of the day.”
At the time it was announced, Provost and Vice-President Academic Tony Vannelli said the plan would put tuition levels at the median rate of the U15 group of Canadian research universities.
Keith says affordability is often a reason why graduate students choose the U of S over other schools. Increasing tuition could lead candidates to choose other institutions, with the result being fewer graduate students available to work on research or undergraduate courses.
“I’ve talked to quite a few people and one of the advantages of the University for graduate students is that the tuition has been historically much lower,” Keith said. “So I think that’s a huge competitive advantage that we’re going to lose if this does go through.”
The university has said it would increase financial aid for graduate students in the form of scholarships, bursaries, and tuition credits by more than $10 million per year by 2025, with an estimated two-thirds of the annual incremental tuition going to the increased student financial aid.