GradCOLA protests against the student funding crisis at SFU

Graduate students set demands for financial support from SFU

This is a photo of the SFU Burnaby campus. The outdoor staircase into the convocation mall is shown. The sky is dark and cloudy.
PHOTO: Gudrun Wai-Gunnarsson / The Peak

By: Natalie Cooke, News Writer 

On December 12, 2022, the SFU Graduate Student Society (GSS) and Teaching Support Staff Union (TSSU) organized a noise demonstration in response to the funding crisis that many students across North America face. Most graduate students rely on the income they receive from teaching or departmental scholarships. The precarious nature of these jobs does not offer stability to the many graduates paying off student loans. According to Statistics Canada, roughly half of graduate students have student debt upon their graduations.

The Canadian Federation of Students reported in 2019 the average debt for bachelor’s and master’s students was $28,000 and the average debt for doctoral students was $33,000

GSS and TSSU formed the GradCOLA coalition and the noise demonstration initiated the beginning of the GradCOLA campaign, which now has a list of demands for the university. Their demands include offering a minimum of $32,000 to graduate students doing research-based work, freezing tuition increases, paying graduate student research assistants the equivalent to teaching assistants, and increasing SFU’s budget for research and academic work.

Angela Wilson, senior director of media relations and public affairs, said in a statement to The Peak, “We recognize the increasing cost pressures students are facing with inflation, the rising costs of living, and limitations in grant funding. SFU continues to look for opportunities to address student affordability challenges. Student affordability is also something that the university continues to address in partnership with student groups and our government partners.”

Economic pressures and financial issues with housing and access to food have led to poor mental health among students. GradCOLA claims SFU has not properly responded to the crisis and needs to address the rising costs of tuition, campus housing, and establishing funding standards. 

Sina Falakian, an SFU graduate student in the physics department, explained the pressures graduate students face in an interview with The Peak. “All the graduate students who are supporting themselves are facing financial problems. Their income simply is not sufficient to pay for rent and living costs. Therefore, they have to live in cheap rooms that are not safe, have financial stress, have to work outside of the university, and some are facing depression because of these pressures.” Falakian said SFU is not supporting these issues. They added SFU needs to increase student income as living costs increase in Metro Vancouver. 

SFU guarantees all graduate students an income of roughly $25,000, depending on the program. The funding is from a combination of scholarships, teaching assistant positions, and research stipends. Falakian mentioned the GSS and TSSU want to adjust the minimum income for graduate students to $32,000 per year. “This change will help students to have less financial stress and focus more on their research. I would also like to mention the very high cost of living for grad students on the campus which needs to be addressed.” 

For a single person living in Metro Vancouver, the average cost per month is approximately $1,300, not including rent. Further, the average cost of rent is roughly $2,500. The annual cost of living would therefore be $45,600. 

Other GradCOLA demands included removing an artificial cap on student income, where more work should be rewarded with more pay. A study conducted across North America found that 76% of graduate students felt the most challenging part of their degree is the cost of living crisis they face. This forces many students to take on extra work, on top of their research. 

“SFU is one of the few Canadian universities that offers support to international students through bursaries. Over 800+ scholarships, awards and bursaries are offered to undergraduate and graduate students (including international students),” said Wilson. “In 2022, more than $2.6 M was raised to support graduate students and there were 421 grad students who received financial support.” 

Wilson encouraged “SFU students who need support to contact the Financial Aid and Awards Office to discuss available options.” She noted SFU is currently developing and implementing their 2023–2028 Strategic Research Plan, which is working to define “ a university-wide minimum funding level for research graduate students.”

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