Canadian academics, graduate students walk out, demanding increased federal funding for researchers

Hundreds of academics from across the country walked out of their classrooms on Monday to protest low funding for graduate and doctoral students in Canada. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
Hundreds of academics from across the country walked out of their classrooms on Monday to protest low funding for graduate and doctoral students in Canada. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

Canadian academics and graduate students from across the country came together on Monday to call on the federal government to increase financial support for graduate and doctoral students out of concern talented young researchers may leave the industry.

Led by the grassroots organization Support Our Science, hundreds of students, professors and supporters walked out of their classrooms and labs May 1 at dozens of postsecondary institutions in cities across the country, including Vancouver, Calgary, Regina, Toronto, Montreal and St. John's.

The organization has previously penned an open letter calling on the federal government, specifically Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and François-Philippe Champagne, the minister of science, innovation and industry, to boost graduate student funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC).

A Canada graduate scholarship from one of the three federal research funding agencies is $17,500 per year for a master's student or $21,000 per year for a doctoral student.

Those amounts have not changed since 2003, despite increased inflation and cost of living over the past 20 years.

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

Luis Ramirez, a master's student at Simon Fraser University (SFU), says the amount he is afforded is barely enough to cover his rent, tuition and food.

"We're getting less than $30,000 [per year], even the PhD students.

"We have to pay rent, we have to pay tuition, and we have to pay groceries and clothing and so on. So it's almost impossible to continue with this. We are on the poverty line right now."

UBC graduate student Katrina Bergmann says the low scholarship amounts are "unacceptable."

"We are the major workforce for Canadian science and innovation," she said.


Lisa Koetke, who is with CUPE 2278 union representing teaching assistants at the University of Northern B.C. in Prince George, said that federal research stipends are lower in smaller regions — which made the spike in the cost of living difficult to deal with.

"Proportionally speaking, graduate students and post-docs here have all the same struggles when it comes to getting paid quite low relative to the cost of living," she said.

Students using food banks

Nancy Forde, a professor at SFU, said federal funding is not meant to make anyone rich but is instead there to ensure researchers can focus on their work without worrying about finances.

But, she says no one can survive on the amount provided in these scholarship funds, adding that many are using food banks to get by.

"I have students in my own research group who are leaving research because they can't afford to live," she said. "They came into the program with savings, and they've depleted their savings."

"Only the privileged can survive."

She worries that as the cost of living continues to increase, more students will be forced to leave their fields, leaving gaps in Canada's research community.

"We're losing amazing talent who could be responsible for the next big scientific breakthroughs and discoveries, help us through the next pandemic and help us figure out climate change. These people are leaving."

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

In December, Champagne said he was aware of the call for more funding for graduate researchers and that it would be part of discussions with the finance minister.

"It's clear that if we want to own the podium, we need to do more to support the researchers, the students and the scientists," Champagne said.

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

In a statement, a spokesperson for the federal Science Ministry said it had provided $114 million over five years in the 2019 budget to granting agencies to create 500 master's scholarships every year, in addition to an $813.6 million increase to student grants in the most recent budget.

The 2023 budget also included commitments to raise the student loan limit from $210 to $300, as well as to waive the requirement for mature students to undergo credit screening before applying for a federal student grant.

"The government remains committed to investing in Canadian research and is focused on how it can continue to support Canada's world-class researchers, scientists and students," the spokesperson said.

The spokesperson did not specifically respond to a question about whether the scholarship amounts would increase.