Report calls for more transparent graduate funding

A sub-committee organized to examine the university’s graduate funding model, in light of criticism last year, found a number of misconceptions as to how those dollars flow, and charged faculties and programs with helping explain the complex model more evenly to students.

The Report of the Graduate Funding Sub-Committee of the Provost’s Task Force on University Budget Models serves as a roadmap of Western’s strategies and approaches to graduate student funding, as well as a showcase for key issues and best practices. The report was presented at the Feb. 12 Senate meeting.

The sub-committee, led by M. Karen Campbell, Special Advisor to the Provost, based its findings on financial data, consultations with graduate students, program chairs/directors and associate deans, as well as letters submitted by faculty, staff and students.

In 2014-15, Western provided $90.9 million to support graduate students. Of this, $55 million was from the university’s operating budget, with the balance coming from external sources, such as supervisor research grants and student scholarships.

The report highlighted an immediate need for improved communication and documentation of graduate student funding.

“On a program-by-program and faculty-by-faculty level, there isn’t always documentation that is clear as it might be and, as well, it may not be communicated as extensively as it might be,” Campbell said. “Therefore, we view our recommendations are an opportunity for programs to fully document their strategies for allocation of the resources that are available to them for graduate students’ support.

“This written documentation not only becomes a vehicle for communication with students and faculty, but it also becomes a record of current practice that can be examined carefully as we consider options for future strategies to enhance our capacity to support graduate students.”

At the top of the list of recommendations was a charge to ensure, at a minimum, faculties and programs complete the following items by September:

  • Develop publically available documentation at program and faculty levels to explain how funding flows to students from all sources, and for all categories of students;
  • Develop a plan to communicate clearly documentation of each student’s individual annual funding plan; and
  • Ongoing development and support of all new graduate program chairs and assistants to undertake their roles effectively.

Most faculty and staff understand the specific funding models in their area, but Campbell said “there was a varying level of understanding in the community regarding graduate student support.” The complexity of the support models underscores this lack of understanding, she said.

“We are pointing to the need to have a uniform style of documentation that can be understood by all,” she said. “There’s a differing level of understanding in the community and as many misconceptions as there are accurate perceptions as to how the dollars flow. We are hoping our report will aid as a first step in explaining this complex model to the community.”

Western’s funding models have evolved over time and are disciplinary specific.

For example, students in faculties with disciplines supported by Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) received more support from supervisors’ research grants compared to disciplines receiving predominately Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) support. The SSHRC-funded disciplines received a higher proportion of support from internal resources, such as graduate teaching assistanceships and course support.

Tamara Hinan, Society of Graduate Students President, said the report is a necessary first step in establishing a common understanding about how graduate funding works across campus. However, due to the sub-committee’s limited mandate, the report “identifies, but does not present recommendations for change to key grad funding issues.”

She stressed, “While transparency and better communication about funding packages are vital to improving graduate student life on campus, bigger challenges remain, such as the insufficiency of minimum funding for doctoral students; the lack of support for ‘unfunded groups’ like year X students; the lack of travel and conference funding; and the need for better support for international graduate students. All of these issues impact graduate student research and wellness.”

Hinan hopes the report is only the beginning of an ongoing conversation.

“The most valuable part of this report is the beginning of a dialogue about issues with graduate funding on our campus, and the opportunity for graduate students to have their voices heard in this conversation,” she said. “I hope that Western’s administration will build on the momentum gained through this report and begin to address some of these major financial challenges that cause significant stress to graduate students.”

Now that the sub-committee has achieved its mandate, Campbell is handing the baton to Linda Miller, Vice-Provost (Graduate & Postdoctoral Studies), and the School of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies (SGPS) for implementation. The report also recommends the formation of an implementation committee, reporting to Miller.

“In my position, the level of communication that is most critical to deal with, as the (most) immediate, is certainly the communication to the students,” Miller said, noting many of the ongoing concerns voiced by Hinan are a result of needing improved communication about funding structures and available student support.

“That has been most effective at the time of the offer, where we’ve probably been less consistent across programs is the communication of subsequent years in the program.”

SGPS expects all students to receive an annual letter that articulates the amount and sources of funding, however Miller said this has not happened consistently across programs. She will be working with the Associate Deans for graduate studies in each faculty to implement the recommendations of the report.

“I think this report is great because one of the things it’s done really clearly is articulate just how complex graduate funding is and how it needs to be complex because it has to be able to mold itself to each of the disciplines,” she said. “That is both the beauty and the frustration.”

The sub-committee report was part of the larger Report of the Provost’s Task Force on University Budget Models. That task force returned findings largely uncritical of the current model, instead finding the key flaw was its “complexity” and how that “presents many inherent and significant communication challenges that need to be addressed in order to better respond to concerns related to the perceived and/or real deficiencies in transparency, community engagement, understanding and trust in the university’s financial processes.”