Saad Anis faces a philosophical problem he may not be able to argue his way out of.
Anis is one of six international philosophy PhD candidates raising concerns about funding for students who take longer than the recommended four years to complete the degree. The group has approached University of Western Ontario administration about their concerns with hopes the university might extend financial support beyond the four-year timeline.
“We say the program is not finishable in four years,” says Anis, a Pakistani student entering his PhD’s third year.
Western guarantees funding for all doctoral students for four years, or five if they were admitted directly from an undergraduate degree. While four years of doctoral funding is the norm across Ontario, not all universities provide a guaranteed minimum funding level.
The four-year benchmark is based on the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities (MTCU), which regards doctoral programs as four-year programs, says Linda Miller, vice-provost (graduate and postdoctoral studies). MTCU provides transfer funding to universities for a maximum of four years for all Canadian graduate students; however, it does not provide transfer funds for international students.
“Programs are designed and intended to be feasible to complete in four years,” Miller says.
The university has invested in providing services to support graduate students with thesis writing, often cited as a factor in contributing to longer completion times, she notes.
“Any student, Canadian or international, who requires longer than four years to complete the doctoral program is in a situation of no longer having guaranteed funding,” she continues. “Although there is no guarantee of funding beyond the fourth year, the majority of students in this situation continue to receive some funding. Often this funding comes from the supervisor (such as from a research grant) or from teaching.”
Part of the reason these students are waving a red flag is a recent federal policy change restricting international graduate students from applying for permanent residency status during their years on a study permit.
In June 2010, Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney authorized an amendment to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act in order to reduce the Federal Skilled Worker application backlog. Under the amendment, applicants who formerly qualified because they had been living in Canada with legal status as a temporary foreign worker or international student will no longer be eligible under the Federal Skilled Worker program. However, they may still meet the eligibility criteria of the Canadian Experienced Class program.
The resulting implications mean international students who take longer than four years to complete their studies cannot apply for permanent residency status. Previously, if a PhD student qualified for permanent residency status, he or she would be able to pay domestic tuition fees, paying $6,261 compared to $14,490 for 2011-12.
Western, along with other Canadian universities, has brought its concerns to the federal government in an effort to have the policy reconsidered, Miller says.
While this provided a loophole for international students to extend their stay in the past, Anis says university’s efforts to lobby the government to reverse the amendment will not solve the problem as many international students do not wish to apply for permanent residency status.
“We are not sure the university will be able to solve this problem because we think they are trying to solve the wrong problem,” he says.
Society of Graduate Students president Saidur Chowdhury feels international graduate students should be provided with funding beyond four years if they are unable to finish their PhD within this timeline. Depending on the research project, not all students can project their finish date, he notes.
However, he feels research proposals on the outset should be tempered with rationality, meaning students shouldn’t propose something to their advisor without a realistic projected timeline.
“We are not pushing the university, we are requesting the university to do some research work and find a real solution,” Chowdhury says. “It will not be an international university if you don’t think about the graduate students’ funding.”
“Our internationalization and expansion aspirations are well supported by the high quality of our programs and competitiveness of our doctoral funding guarantee,” Miller says. “We need to continue to monitor the times to completion in all of our doctoral programs and ensure that the design of our programs supports completion within the four-year timeframe.
“We monitor the times to completion for all of our programs. When programs show a pattern of requiring more than four years for many of their students, we work with them in reviewing their requirements and processes with the intent of identifying the contributing factors and making revisions to remedy the issues.”
While there is no strict rule stating students must finish a PhD within four years, if they are unable to do so there can be serious consequences for international students. In particular, they stand to be deported because they must prove to Citizenship and Immigration Canada they are enrolled in a university and have sufficient funds to pay tuition and living fees in order to renew their study permits.
“We have international graduate students across all faculties at Western and concerns about the changes in the immigration policy affect students across the campus,” Miller says.
This is not just an international issue.
Both Canadian and international students sometimes require longer than four years to complete their program and in doing so extend beyond their four years of guaranteed funding, Miller says.
In most cases, these students continue to receive funding beyond the guaranteed timeline, often coming from their supervisor’s research grant and/or from teaching. Canadian students, however, are also eligible for some government funding programs, such as the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), which international students are not.
Russell Poole, associate dean (research) for the Faculty of Arts and Humanities, says there has been a slow completion culture at Western, which the university is working hard to curb.
“I want to see a culture of completion, not a culture of complaint,” Poole says. “We say four years and we should mean four years.”
While the words may sound harsh, the reality is the university only provides funding for four years, says Poole, making it imperative the students complete within this timeline or look to other avenues to fund subsequent years of study.
Of the 25 PhD students in the Department of Philosophy who started since 2000 and completed their degree, close to half took longer than five years (10 students). The majority (15 students) finished in five years or less, including three students who finished in four years or less. One person took more than nine years to complete.
According to a May 2009 Performance and Activity Indicators report presented to Western’s Board of Governors, the average number of years to complete a doctoral degree (for the cohort entering 1994-1998) was 4.8 years. The average for the G13 universities is 5.3 years.
“Now it is true that at present the majority of students in practice take longer,” Poole says. “But this prolongation occurs as a result of a backlog of slow completions from an earlier graduate student culture.”
The philosophy completion times are comparable with other programs, he adds.
“Students, programs and administrators need to work together to shift an insidious culture where completion beyond the years of fundability is perceived as inevitable and unavoidable,” he says.
In fact, programs and administrators have been working together to generate a cultural shift for several years, including the introduction of a streamlined progression through the PhD degree implemented by the former Faculty of Graduate Studies. As a result, students across various programs have taken advantage of the opportunities to complete more speedily, Poole explains.
Poole met with the philosophy students to discuss their concerns and suggested they lobby provincial or federal government parties about the issue of funding facing international graduate students. He coupled this advice with a suggestion to “shift the culture of protracted completion and get their work done within fundability.”
“At present all of them still have the time to do so.”
But Amy Wuest, an American entering her third year of a PhD program in philosophy at Western, has felt the pressure to finish in four. If she goes over, Wuest is concerned if she will be able to renew her study permit. Without it, Wuest could no longer be enrolled in the PhD program and the four years of effort will be lost.
“It’s not even the case that if we go past four years we could just go home and finish our degree,” she says. “Because to be enrolled as international students in a Canadian university we need a study permit.”
“We think it is their moral responsibility to provide us with the funding that they do because they promised us funding for reasonable duration for the completion of our degree,” Anis adds.
In fact, the Letter of Offer for PhD students only guarantees funding for four years, Poole says. But with the new federal government policy change, this could mean the students are now faced with the prospect of having to leave Canada at the end of that timeline, he explains.
While sympathetic, Poole draws a hard line when it comes to considering funding international graduate students a “moral obligation” of the university.
“Society and the university cannot afford to foster a class of students who reserve the right to complete within their own sense of an appropriate time,” he says. “You cannot force a person to complete. Everybody who has ever been a supervisor knows that. Therefore the university cannot be placed in a position of moral responsibility.
“Where the university’s responsibility does lie … is in maintaining quality control over programs.”
Gone are the days when students were bogged down with endless courses and comprehensive exams, Poole says. The School of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies and the faculties have since made provisions to ensure the progression from PhD Year 1-4 is not cluttered by unnecessary courses and exams, or other so-called busywork, Poole notes.
The programs also free up time so students can focus on their thesis without having to teach a course, as a teaching assistant, at the same time. The university offers workshops and seminars on procrastination and has increased teacher-training and professionalization courses to help graduating students entering the job market.
If funding is an issue, international students can apply for a limited duties teaching position, Poole says. A faculty member on an external research grant, such as the SSHRC Standard Research Grant or Insight Grant, could also retain them as a research assistant.
For now, Anis and Wuest stand at the half-way point, both looking down the road at a funding timeline neither feel is reasonable.
“What do we do?” Wuest says. “We just don’t want it to be the case that our blame is having chosen to come to a Canadian university to pursue a PhD … because we are in this position such that finishing in four years looks incredibly tenuous and certainly not by any extent guaranteed.”
Michael Milde, acting dean for the Faculty of Arts and Humanities and Stephen Sims, associate vice-provost for the School of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies, declined to comment about these specific cases.