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Canada Needs to Fund Graduate Students, Not Research Mega Projects

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Steven High, Professor of History at Concordia University and President of the Canadian Historical Association

Trickle down theory is alive and well it seems in our universities.

While graduate students in Canada live well below the poverty line, given miserly federal funding levels for scholarships that have not increased in decades, the Canadian government recently announced that it is investing a staggering $1.4 billion in eleven large-scale research initiatives ranging from $83 million to $199 million each. The amounts awarded by the Canada First Research Excellence Fund are staggering, particularly as the largest grants offered by Canada’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, one of the three funding bodies involved, was hitherto $2.5 million over seven years. That is quite the jump.

Politicians and universities of course like this kind of big splash. It makes headlines. Canada’s Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry, François-Philippe Champagne, is quoted in the press release as saying that “Today’s research is tomorrow’s economy. Since the start, our government has re-established the fundamental role of science and scientists in our society.”

I have no doubt that the research being funded is valuable. But bigger doesn’t always mean better. There are better ways to invest in the future.

Far better to invest in graduate students and post-doctoral fellows directly who are, quite literally, the next generation of researchers. It is akin to supporting start-ups – there are long-term benefits of this kind of bottom-up approach rather than putting $1.5 Billion into just eleven baskets.

As someone who previously lead a large $2.5 million research project on the deindustrialization of working-class communities, an urgent political issue in many countries, I fervently believe in the value of collaboration and partnership in research. But these new research mega-projects are so vast that I fear that they are de facto granting bodies, but without the checks and balances.  The research monies will trickle down from a favoured few.

The Canadian Historical Association is concerned by this trend and strongly encourages the federal government to redirect future funding directly towards doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows.  Across the university sector, the problem of student underfunding has reached crisis proportions. Funding levels for doctoral fellowships have been flat for decades, leaving students to work part-time instead of focusing on their studies. This has meant that it takes them longer to finish. In the History discipline, the average student takes over 6 years to complete a PhD, but federal and provincial funding ends after 4 or 5 years for Quebec and federal scholarships respectively. They are being left in the lurch.

Then, there is the problem that awaits these highly trained professionals upon graduation. Only a small proportion of the strongest students currently receive 2-year postdoctoral fellowships which allow them to continue their research and stay in the job market until the right job comes up. As university research is highly specialized, there are limited job opportunities in one’s field. It can take years before the right job gets posted. Yet these highly trained researchers are abandoned upon graduation.

The cost to society of this brain drain is enormous as is the very real human cost.

That the announcement of these mega-grants came precisely when graduate students across the country went into the streets to protest the current crisis is no coincidence. Mega-grants to a select few are a symptom of the crisis in higher education in Canada. Universities are increasingly turning to lower cost occasional or part-time employed instructors to do the bulk of the teaching. The number of permanent full-time faculty is in sharp decline and, as a result, the number of people paid to do research is also in decline.

The deteriorating situation is made that much worse by the fact that so many universities, in seeking to become “world class,” are hiring graduates of large prestigious universities in other countries instead of our own graduates. Each time, the university has to go through the motions of arguing that there are “no qualified Canadians” for the job. More often than not, this is little more than a lie.

What is the point of having graduate programs in Canada if we are not going to hire our own or properly fund them? The Canadian Historical Association’s Task Force on the Future of the PhD at Canadian Universities has shown that only 2% of our PhD graduates studying US History and 4% of those specializing in European History, find tenure-track jobs. The message we are sending is clear – if you want a future in research, leave Canada.