Just a heads up, things are about to get a bit political.
For most graduate programs in the US and Canada, students are required to teach as part of their funding package. One of the biggest difference I’ve experienced between grad school in the US and Canada is that graduate student teaching assistants and course instructors are unionized in Canada. This year, the collective agreement between the union and the University of Toronto expired. The union had been bargaining with the university for a new agreement, but last Friday the agreement proposed by the university was soundly rejected by hundreds of the union members. So, we are now on strike. And it is an experience.
I have chosen not cross the picket line and show solidarity with my fellow union members, so the courses I am a teaching assistant for this semester are having to adjust to my absence. And yesterday was my first day on the picket line. All of this a new and interesting experience for me, as I have never been a union member before, let alone a striking union member.
One of the biggest issues we are facing is an increase to our stipend. The university only guarantees us a take home of $15,000/year in one of the most expensive cities in Canada to live in. This stipend is mostly composed of teaching hours, with some research assistant funding included. But importantly, it is far below the poverty line of Toronto which is $23,000. And while we may only teach part time during the year, being a grad student is a full time job and, even if we had the time, we are often discouraged or prohibited from getting jobs to supplement our stipend. For me, I cannot get another job due to the restrictions of my student visa. Most grad students work far more hours than we are contractually obligated to, ensuring the undergraduate students receive the best education experience they possibly can. And we represent an important line of communication and support for undergraduates. I, personally, love teaching and interacting with students and take my responsibilities to heart.
Furthermore, grad school isn’t so much being a “student” as it is being trained to be the researchers and professionals the university relies on. In the sciences, almost all the research done at the university level is done by graduate students, who receive guidance and support from their advisors to build strong and relevant research projects. At the end of the day, the work we do increases the standing and prestige of the university, whose name is attached to all of our published work and is often used to recruit the best and brightest to join the program. But as things stand, the money we get paid to do work for the university has not increased in years, as both interest and cost of living expenses have increased greatly. The funding package provided by the university is starting to drastically lag behind other schools U of T hopes to compete with.
I can personally speak to having more monetary issues here at U of T than during my master’s degree in North Carolina. And it is a big source of stress. On top of that, as an international student, my tuition fees have increased greatly since I’ve been here, so that now over 50% of my take home stipend (which, due to a government scholarship is fortunately more than the $15000 promised by the university) goes to pay the outrageous international student tuition costs. As it works out, each year I have actually taken a $1000 pay cut from when I first began this program. And graduate students are required to pay full tuition costs even in their later years when they have finished their course load and are not using the same amount of university resources.
So it’s back out on the picket line for me every day this week. I would much rather be teaching my students than wandering around in circles out in the cold. And I’m sure I’m not alone in that sentiment. But it’s important that things change and the university acknowledges that we at least need increases to offset rising living costs in this rapidly growing city if it hopes to stay competitive in its graduate and research programs.