Western ramps up support for struggling grad students, triples financial support to $1.5M
Open communication was key to moving towards solutions, according to students and university officials
Western University has promised to increase funding for graduate students dealing with monetary difficulties from $500,000 to a new total of $1.5 million.
Along with the increased funding, the university has committed to triple its off-campus housing staff, and add new support services through the creation of a new staff position in the School of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies.
An initial move to offer $500,000 in bursaries over three years drew praise from students and advocates, many of whom continue to struggle with food instability, inflationary pressures, and high rent prices. Now, the university is offering $1.5 million in needs-based bursaries over three years, amounting to $500,000 per year.
Increasing support for students was prompted in large part by Society of Graduate Students (SOGS) data showing high levels of food and housing insecurity.
"The executive and I are proud of the work that we put in, and also for the membership, for trusting us with their stories and their experiences. Graduate student life, funding, and quality of life has never been more centre stage," said Danica Facca, the president of SOGS.
Among the announced supports, a special focus on supports for international students is one specific highlight, said Facca.
The complexities of international student life can often mean tight budgets, trouble finding housing, and unexpected problems transitioning to life in Canada. This is why a special grant for international graduate students and low-cost transitional housing for new arrivals are much appreciated, Facca added.
The university also announced a $4,000 increase in minimum guaranteed funding for PhD students, which previously sat at $20,000.
Additionally, the tripling of off-campus housing staff will help students by adding more staff to the team that verifies and visits local rentals on behalf of students, and review leases, said a university release.
"Finances can only go so far. You do need administrative support, and community support," said Facca.
Planning is also underway for new on-campus housing for upper-year undergraduate and graduate students.
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The focus on housing comes amid a worsening housing situation that has caused headaches for both graduate and undergraduate students. Some students told CBC News in January they struggled to find apartments below $1,000 per month within a reasonable distance from campus.
Communication, community support key
Part of the process that informed university officials in their decision making was student engagement, said Florentine Strzelczyk, provost and vice-president of academics at Western, who said the issues of affordability and cost of living for graduate students are nation-wide.
"We've been in meetings. We also had a large town hall in March where a lot of students came and and spoke about their concerns," said Strzelczyk. "I've been an international student, and I think it is important from my perspective to keep the communication open."
The willingness of students to share their struggles at the March town hall and in other forums was paramount to the success of their advocacy, Facca said.
"I'm proud that we were able to play a significant role, but I definitely want to echo that it still takes a community for something like this to take shape, administration included," she said.
Facca said she hopes larger conversations are still on the horizon in terms of how universities look at funding graduate students and where the line should be drawn for universities acting as support systems for their students.
"[Western is] part of a much larger, complex, broader system, so to see even incremental change at this level is huge, because Western doesn't operate in a vacuum. Everything is contingent on other actors and other institutions," she said.
"This is a step in the right direction."