Graduate finance issues ignored

By Rob South

Tucked away in a mostly ignored corner of the third floor of Mac-Ewan Student Centre, Viola Cassis’ office gets crowded in a hurry. Because she shares the office with the rest of the Graduate Students’ Association Executive, the state of the office seems to mirror the amount of attention Cassis perceives issues of graduate finances receives.

"There certainly are a number of issues that are particular to graduate students," said Cassis, who is the GSA President. "A tuition increase for graduate students has differential effects on grad students than it does on undergraduates."

Consultation is going well between University of Calgary administration and the GSA this year, but no number has been discussed according to Cassis. The Students’ Union’s consultation process occurs away from the GSA’s consultations.

"It’s difficult in the sense that our discussions are separate, and there’s no opportunity for a committee of the whole, so to speak, to come together and discuss how a tuition increase will affect all students," said Cassis. "Because graduate tuition fees are linked to an undergraduate tuition increase we feel that there needs to be that kind of communication, that discussion between the two groups and the Vice-president Finance."

However, graduate students’ issues go far beyond tuition. Notably, Cassis is concerned about the level of funding for Graduate Assistantships Teaching and research funding.

"Graduate students contribute to the university in a number of ways; they contribute to the research function as well as the teaching function," said Cassis. "But from my perspective, those two functions are inadequately valued at this university and the funding levels are indicative of that–the funding levels are disproportionately lower at this university than they are at other universities."

Not everybody at the university holds Cassis’ views on how graduate students are funded, including acting Dean of Graduate Studies and Associate Vice-president Academic Jim Frideres.

"Is the U of C GAT value competitive? I would say it’s in the mid-pack," said Frideres. "It’s not at the bottom and it’s certainly not at the top. It’s mid-range, so does that make us competitive? In some respects, it makes us somewhat competitive.

"On the other hand, why isn’t it more? The answer there I would say is that we have undergone a 21 per cent budget cut in the 1990s and we are still trying to claw our way back out of it, but we have tried to maintain the value of GATs."

According to Frideres, it is important that graduate students receive more financial support so they may concentrate their efforts on their academic studies and research; to Frideres, this can only be achieved if the provincial government starts viewing education as an investment and not a cost.

Cassis also has concerns with government, namely that there is no Alberta Heritage Foundation fund for the humanities when one was recently created for engineering. Further, Cassis is bothered that only PhD students can apply for grants from the federal Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, though PhD candidates can.

Whether any of these issues will be resolved in the coming year is unclear, but according to both Frideres and Cassis, they could have a profound impact on the future of post-secondary education.

"We have a definite problem [as a country] dealing with the recruitment and retention of graduate students," said Frideres. "I think, unless we make it more attractive, we are going to be in deep, deep trouble because it is estimated by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada that we are going to need roughly 30,000 [new] professors in the next decade."