Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Unintended consequences - graduate student funding at UBC-V

There is a lot of variation in how graduate students at UBC-V are funded. One of the biggest differences is found in how research Master's and research Doctoral students are supported. In 2017 UBC-V's senate passed a resolution to mandate a 4 year minimum funding program for all research PhD students. At the time, the proponents of this plan said it would have a neutral effect on other graduate certificates and funding programs. 

The PhD funding program places the responsibility for ensuring each PhD studnets gets the 4 year package into each individual graduate programs hands. There is no centrally coordinate funding source but rather: "Funding sources can include any combination of external or internal scholarships, research assistantship, teaching assistantship, or other academically-related work at UBC (e.g., Graduate Student Academic Assistantship, lectureships)" (Faculty of Grad Studies Handbook). 

Because there is no central funding mechanism, just a hodgepodge of sources quilted together case by case, a lot of variation and questions of inequity emerge. In STEM programs, where it is more common for faculty supervisors to have significant core funding to operate laboratories, graduate admissions is often based upon finding a supervisor willing to put the money forward for the student. In these cases, as long as the student meets the standards of the program and have a supervisor with cash on hand, they are accepted.  

In other programs where faculty lack the large core funding programs (like humanities, for example),  departmental committees have more control over admissions decisions but relatively less funds to play with. Here they cobble together funding offers from teaching assistantships, funding envelopes provided by central offices, research assistantships if faculty have surplus research funds, and anything else that the department can find. It's not really an effective system, but it has been working (sort of).

In between the two models described above is a spectrum of variations in amount PhD studnets get, source of their funding, and relative control over their income by research supervisor or department committee.  

I have noticed that MA students appear to be facing increased funding deprivation.  For one thing there has been an increased pressure at UBC to increase PhD student numbers as this is understood to be a metric of excellence.  Some faculty originate from education systems that only offer professional Master's programs or see the Master's degree as an enroute degree.  UBC has had a great Master's program that has served generations of students well. Master's students have never really received sufficient funding attention. However, it looks like Master's students are receiving even less funding attention these days. Programs without large STEM grants seem to be concentrating their meagre resources into funding PhD students at the expense of Master's students. Some programs have apparently even closed their Master's programs in favour of only admitting PhD students.

This unindented consequence could have been predicted four years ago when the policy of PhD minimum funding was enacted. But we were all too excited to be meeting the needs of potential PhD students and ratcheting up the rankings from excellence to eminence.  A master's degree is an important degree. For many professionals it is the certifying degree, not the phd. I've worked with over two dozen amazing MA students over my years at UBC. All of them are engaged in occupations that relate to the social sciences - from government agencies, to NGOS, to the private sector these MA students are making a contribution based, in part, on their time at UBC. It seems a major shame that our funding programs are creating the unintended consequences of diminishing the possibilities for future master's students.

Its time to reshape our graduate funding system in a way that is fair and equitable, and that prioritizes student learning over university rankings or individual supervisor preference.

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