Making ends meet: UBC's graduate students strike a complex financial balance

Addyson Frattura, a student in her final year of an educational studies masters program at UBC, estimated that she works from 45 to 60 hours per week, not including other activities she does in order to fill up her academic portfolio.

“The part time jobs I’m working now are mostly just for financial means, not necessarily experiential,” said Frattura. “For the most part, it’s just to pay for rent and food.”

Frattura had a partial department scholarship for her first year, plus a couple hundred dollars for the international tuition award. But this year, she doesn’t have any funding.

“My department ... I believe it does not have the capacity to fund masters students,” said Frattura.

Frattura is forced to finance her degree creatively through a cocktail of loans, intensive summer jobs, research assistant positions and whatever she needs to do to fill gaps for rent and food. She is one of many grad students who receive little or inadequate funding from UBC, meaning that simply making ends meet becomes a calculation.

The Ubyssey took a look at the funding available to graduate students and how these students afford their degrees.

Funding the foundation

When students are unable to receive the amount of funding that they need from provincial loans, the university does step up and help.

“Our bursary program is guided by Policy 72, [which] states that for any domestic student who is eligible under the policy, they won’t be prevented from continuing or commencing their studies at the university for financial reasons alone,” said Darran Fernandez, an elected member of the UBC Board of Governors, associate registrar and director of the student support & advising unit in enrolment services. “But what the policy also states is that students who are eligible need to do everything within their own capacity to fund their studies.”

Fernandez said that eligibility for the program is tied to provincial loan assessments, meaning that students can access the funding if they take out the maximum amount of provincial funding, but still need additional support.

“The part time jobs I’m working now are mostly just for financial means, not necessarily experiential. For the most part, it’s just to pay for rent and food.”

— Addyson Frattura

“[Let’s say] there’s a graduate student who has… tuition of $6,000 annually but overall expenses of $23,000 and they apply for a BC student loan. So the BC student loan program will give just under $11,000, maybe they have about $3,000 that they’re able to contribute on their own … there’s still a gap between everything that they’ve been able to produce [and their costs],” explained Fernandez.

“If that student were to apply for a bursary during the timeline for the bursary program and we were to calculate that they do have a net need of $9,000, they would receive $9,000 in bursary.”

Fernandez said that for 2016/17 research-based programs, of the 439 students that applied for the bursary, 201 were eligible and an average of about $5,500 was given to each. For designated graduate programs, such as a masters of business administration or a masters of journalism, 59 of the 171 that applied were eligible, with an average award of $3,800.

Fernandez elaborated that students pursuing their law or medical degrees can also access this bursary funding and that there are other resources available for students in these programs. Because these programs are often among the most expensive and the maximum amount of provincial funding is around $11,000 regardless of tuition amount, UBC has “worked on with certain loan providers … to provide feasible and competitive line of credit rates so that they can borrow through those means,” said Fernandez.

The bursary program also supports students who have childcare concerns and takes into account dependents when assessing financial need.

“With our graduate students [or] students who are maybe at a later stage in life … they’re dealing with different issues than a first or second or third-year undergraduate student who may be 19-years old, and may be living at home or still has support from family,” said Fernandez. “With graduate students … they’re coming with a great level of complexity to their financial situation.

“So we try to style our financial programs to acknowledge that.”

A large portion of the UBC Operating Fund that is allocated to graduate programs goes towards the four-year doctoral fellowship program — which provides some students in the PhD — doctor of musical arts and combined MD/PhD programs with financial support of at least $18,200 per year, in addition to tuition, for up to four years of their studies. According to UBC’s 2016/17 Annual Report on Student Financial Support, this “allows UBC to continue to attract and support outstanding domestic and international doctoral students, and to provide those students with stable, base-level funding for their doctoral studies and research.”

Advocating affordability

There are several lobbying efforts that the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations, which includes UBC Vancouver’s Graduate Student Society (GSS) but not the AMS, is taking towards the federal government.

Canada Student Grants (CSGs) are up-front needs-based student aid from the federal government that do not need to be repaid, but are currently only available to students at the college and undergraduate level — not grad students. Graduate students are currently eligible for Canadian student loans, but these must be repaid. CASA recommends that the federal government create “an up-front, non-repayable Canada student grant for graduate students with financial need,” a fund which they estimate would cost the federal government $58 million per year.

The Canada Student Loans Program (CSLP) also offers the CSG for Students with Permanent Disabilities, a grant worth up to $2,000 each year. This grant however leaves out students whose disabilities while still debilitating are not permanent, including episodic conditions, mental health problems and temporary illnesses.

As well, while the federal government increased the value of the CSG by 50 per cent in its 2016 budget, unlike other grants, the CSG for Students with Permanent Disabilities has not gone up in value since it was introduced in 2009. CASA is asking that “the CSLP undertake an official review of its definition of permanent disabilities to ensure that it meets the diverse needs of students” and that the federal government increase this grant by 50 per cent as well, a move which they estimate would come with an additional cost of $42 million.

Making the cut

The UBC Vancouver Senate approved the establishment of a university-wide minimum funding level for all full-time PhD students in May 2017. The policy states that PhD students, domestic and international, will receive at least $18,000 for each of the first four years of their program, excluding any official leave of absences. This funding can come from a variety of sources, including external or internal scholarships, research assistantship, teaching assistant positions or other academic work at UBC such as lecturing.

However, only students who will commence their PhD studies after September 1, 2018 are eligible and it remains unclear how the program will affect these new students.

“It’s just what the capacity was on campus. So in terms of what was doable for some of the programs that would have more challenges [than others] meeting the minimum.”

— Brenda Morey, UBC Graduate School assistant dean of student administration and awards

But while the sources of PhD funding are comprehensive, the policy’s reach isn’t. Left out of this policy are students enrolled in part-time programs, as well as students in educational leadership and policy or doctor of musical arts programs. The minimum funding program also only applies to PhD students, leaving those pursuing masters degrees without this safety net.

This policy requires that graduate programs only admit doctoral students that the graduate program and supervisors have the means to support, considering factors such as support from supervisor’s grants, internal and external scholarships, availability of research and teaching assistantships, as well as financial commitments to existing students. This means that while students pursuing their PhDs at UBC will be more supported, it may become harder to be admitted, especially for low-income students.

Even if students are lucky enough to receive school funding, it might not be enough. It is questionable whether this fund will cover everything, as the cost of living in Vancouver may mean that students cannot live on the $18,000 of minimum funding alone — something even UBC admits. The UBC Graduate School’s website features a cost of living calculator, where many of the costs calculated are well above the minimum funding level.

The Ubyssey used this to determine the cost for single, childless, domestic students living on-campus in shared accommodations and not owning a car in every program covered by the minimum funding policy, and found that the average cost was $23,189.50. For international students, the figure was $26,896.33.

“There was lots of discussion about what was the appropriate level. I think one reason we ended up with $18,000 is there’s the four year fellowship program, which is one of the largest programs for PhD students, award programs, and it’s at $18,200. That’s been in place for a while, and so that gave us a ballpark number,” said Brendan Morey, the assistant dean of student administration and awards for UBC’s Graduate School.

“It’s just what the capacity was on campus. So in terms of what was doable for some of the programs that would have more challenges [than others] meeting the minimum.”

A note underneath the calculator also notes that “UBC expects you and your family to assume primary responsibility for covering the cost of your education,” and that while many students may receive funding for four years — such as students under the minimum funding requirement — it often takes longer than that to graduate.

“The majority of students don’t finish in four years … And that is a topic of significant conversation and has been for years in terms of the duration of funding,” said Morey. “It’s always a case of, ‘do we offer funding for a longer period of time and less funding for students?’… But again it’s a sense of starting somewhere, and the university is hoping to kind of nudge programs to finish sooner.

“It’s going to take a long time for that to happen.”

Despite this difference in funding and her concerns with the application process, Frattura said the minimum funding policy would “definitely” influence her decision of where to study if she had her choice of PhD programs.

“I think there are pros and cons to the minimum package funding policy … [I’ve heard of] PhD students who are working full time and doing PhDs, which makes it really difficult to do the level of research that you’re trying to do when you’re working all the time,” said Frattura.

“I think it’s a great thing that the department has to provide a minimum package so that they can focus on research and do what they’re there to do … but then I think it also is tricky for the arts and humanities, because a lot of arts departments … already have less resources.”

Who gets to go?

While Frattura acknowledged that carrying this much money in student loans and having to work through her degree program is difficult, she also acknowledged that it is a privilege to even be able to take on these loans.

“I had the privilege to access these resources, and to put myself in a situation that was financially not secure because I had a lot of privilege coming into that,” said Frattura.

While the new minimum funding policy may be helpful in making getting a PhD more accessible, it is unclear to which degree this will be. With cost barriers still in place for masters degrees, it may be hard for these students to get the qualifications they need to get into a PhD program at UBC.

“I think that’s a huge note on how people fund their programs because there’s so many people in the United States and in Canada who aren’t able to make those decisions like that and are very limited in their academic professions and where they’re able to go,” said Frattura.