Western commits $500K for struggling grad students, students push for long-term solutions
graduate student representative hopes the money will offer short-term relief ahead of long-term solutions
Western University has announced $500,000 in funding to help graduate students deal with rampant food instability, inflationary pressures, and an increasingly expensive rental market, in a move that has drawn praise from students.
The funding was announced during the university's senate meeting on Thursday, and will create bursaries that are handed to students on an as-needed basis.
"We recognize some of our graduate students are experiencing very real financial challenges brought on by rising housing, living and food costs," said provost and vice-president (academic) Florentine Strzelczyk. "We wanted to address their urgent needs right now."
Western's half-million dollar commitment was prompted in large part by a 2022 study initiated by the Society of Graduate Students (SOGS) at the university, which found that out of a sampling of 1429 graduate students, 44 per cent identified as food insecure. Additionally, 55 per cent said they cannot afford clothing and hygiene products.
Many reported struggling with rent payments as well.
SOGS represents 6,700 full-time graduate students at Western and the three affiliated university colleges.
When SOGS initially presented the research to Western, it asked for $250,000 over five years. Western responded by offering $500,000 over three years, the single largest investment Western has made to SOGS since its founding in 1963.
The funding will allow SOGS to use the funding they gain through membership fees to improve their emergency support programs, she added.
'Larger conversations' needed
"I'm ecstatic, but my caveat to that is I'm ecstatic because this is a short-term commitment that will help as the larger, high stakes conversations start to take shape," said Danica Facca, the president of SOGS.
While the funding is welcome, and will likely provide a much needed lifeline to students, longstanding issues need to be addressed, Facca said.
"[Once the bursaries are depleted], what does that mean then? How will the university respond?" said Facca. "I think it will put them in a position to recognize that these larger structural pieces need to be addressed with severity and seriousness."
Structural issues include the minimum amount of income that students are provided, Facca said. The current minimum funding guarantee for doctoral students is $20,000, but the amounts actually paid out vary faculty to faculty, which results in inequity, she added.
Facca hopes to see a commitment by officials to significantly raise that minimum guarantee. A higher guaranteed income would ideally cover not only tuition, but allow students to avoid taking out loans or working a second job, and keep them above the poverty line.
Brittany Melton, a 28 year old PhD student at Western, told CBC News the common trend of graduate students working additional jobs to stay afloat can often jeopardize their education, and their long-term financial stability.
"There's huge pressure to finish on time within four years. If you miss that time frame you are not guaranteed any funding, or a job," said Melton.
While the pressure to finish their studies on time pushes from one side, the pressure to seek out extra sources of income that could potentially slow down their studies and leave them without funding feels very real, Melton said.
Meanwhile, Facca acknowledged that external pressures like inflation and high rent prices put extra pressure on students, especially those who don't qualify for guaranteed funding. For those students, she hopes the university will commit to strengthening existing financial supports in the coming years.
She also believes the university should commit to making full-ride scholarships for unfunded programs for students from equity-deserving groups.
Strzelczyk said Western will augment housing options for graduate and upper-year students, with plans expected to go to the Board of Governors for approval in the coming months.
A town hall event for graduate students to share their views will take place soon.
As for the bursaries, University administration and SOGS executives will meet within a week to iron out details.