UVic Torch -- Fall 2004
Autumn 2004,
Volume 25, Number 2

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Raising the Stakes - PHOTOGRAPHY BY DIANA NETHERCOTT Raising the Stakes

Grad Studies programs are growing fast. So is the competition for top students and the need for dollars to support them.

MICHELLE ARNOLD IS CLOSING IN ON HER GOAL. By spring time the doctoral candidate will have done her final experiments in cognitive psychology, published original research on the unpredictable nature of human memory and, if all goes well, she’ll cross the stage at convocation to accept her PhD. The grad student’s research “apprenticeship” will end and she’ll embark on the next stage of her career, probably in academia.

The Canadian university system will need a lot more people like Michelle Arnold in the coming years—people with finely honed expertise and research skills, people with a graduate level of education. The federal government wants to place Canada in the world’s top five research-intensive nations within six years. At the same time, roughly 40,000 new university and college instructors will be needed by 2015 as professors retire and demand grows for post-secondary education.

At UVic, national trends translate into an ambitious plan to expand graduate studies: 17 new master’s and doctoral programs are either available or will be offered by 2010; the grad student population is forecast to grow by 32 per cent—to about 2,900—by 2010; and within the same period, the university intends to offer more fellowships that compete with what other universities offer. “Our goal is to support reasonably—not gloriously, but reasonably—the top 20 per cent of students. To do that, we’re looking at another $10 million in addition to what we’ve already got,” says Aaron Devor, the Dean of Graduate Studies.

Devor finds himself looking to external sources—private donors, governments—for financial support for grad students. It’s a role he didn’t anticipate but it’s one that he has embraced. “It was not in my job description. At the same time, I hear some heart wrenching stories about what happens to people when they run up against significant financial difficulties. Sometimes people fall by the wayside simply because they can’t pay the rent. That’s a tremendous loss when you have people with passion and ability. If they can’t make use of that, it’s a real waste.”

Back at the Cornett Building’s Psychology office, Arnold says she is, financially, one of the lucky ones. In her time at UVic she’s supported herself with graduate scholarships from NSERC (the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council), departmental scholarships, her work as a teaching assistant, and through funding from her supervisor’s research grants. But still, she’ll graduate a year later than she had hoped.

“This is a full-time endeavour,” says Arnold. “If you’re not doing research, you’re getting ready to do research, or you’re analyzing research, or you’re teaching or taking classes. It’s full. Financially, that’s why you see a lot of students scrambling to get whatever scholarships or whatever funding they can get. I think that’s the biggest struggle.”

Concern about graduates’ financial support is shared by the people who rely on them most: faculty researchers. Finding the right fit isn’t easy. The year before last, the cognitive psychology program didn’t admit any new grad students—partly because they’re highly selective but mainly because of funding. “Frankly, my perception is that that is our biggest challenge,” says Prof. Steve Lindsay, Arnold’s supervisor and the head of the “Cog Prog’s” core group of eight faculty members. “We have a lot of struggles with the physical limitations of our research spaces. But in my work at least, the grad student thing is even bigger.”

Ideally, a new grad student comes into a program with his or her own funding from external agencies like NSERC or the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. But those students are the exception. They’re able to choose among competing universities who, like sports teams vying for free agents, will enter bidding wars for the best and the brightest recruits. Where UVic is concerned, that bidding war often happens in a different financial league. The university offers a top-up of $4,000 for students who hold external grants but older universities with deeper pockets may offer richer, guaranteed financial packages.

“One place is saying, ‘Look, you’ve got $1,500 a month. You can count on it.’ And the other place is saying, ‘Well, I’m sure we’ll be able to work something out.’ That definitely hurts us, I think,” says Lindsay. Arnold agrees. She volunteers advice to prospective grad students who have questions about the university and avenues of financial support. “We lose a lot (of students) to eastern schools, where if you’re accepted you’re guaranteed a certain level of funding.”

UVic fellowship amounts have increased nine per cent, to a maximum of $13,500 for up to two years for master’s students. Doctoral students receive a maximum of $15,000 for up to three years, a 13 per cent increase. But the competition is fierce and meeting the standards (an A- minimum grade average) doesn’t guarantee success. Tuition fees have also increased—seven per cent this year, after increases of 15 per cent and 30 per cent in the past two years. Annual graduate fees for domestic full-time students now stand at $4,404. Chris Hurl, chair of the Graduate Students Society, says tuition costs remain at the top of his group’s agenda. “If we get a teaching assistant position or a scholarship, a significant amount of that will go to tuition and the money leftover isn’t enough to live on.”

Some provinces, like Ontario and Alberta, offer provincial scholarship programs for graduate students. B.C. doesn’t, and often when a student chooses to go elsewhere, provincial support is the difference. “I would like British Columbia to start a graduate studies fellowship program,” says Devor. “I would like the province to put us into that game. When we’ve lost students it’s usually to Alberta or Ontario institutions. I don’t believe they can offer better faculty members but I do have lots of evidence that they can offer better financial packages.” The other key factor is university endowment funds. Generally, the older the university, the bigger the fund. So UVic, being relatively young, is at a disadvantage, says Devor. “I would very much like to see our endowment grow, and grow rapidly.”

A university’s quality of research goes with the talent of its graduate students. They contribute original ideas, help to advance research programs, and as teaching assistants they can be a bridge between the lecture hall and the laboratory. When they leave, they often go to leadership roles in any number of social and economic areas of society.

“We’re at a critical juncture at the University of Victoria,” says Devor. “I see the leadership on campus, a great number of the mid-career faculty, a larger number of our senior faculty and just about all our junior faculty wanting to put UVic on the map as a significant research institution. We won’t turn our back on being a solid undergraduate teaching institution, we want to build on it.” To Graduate Studies: web.uvic.ca/gradstudies

On the Web:
Graduate Studies: web.uvic.ca/gradstudies
Giving to UVic: alumni.uvic.ca/development


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