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Op-ed: Make more money: Invest in student research

December 18, 2019 — 

The following is a personal op-ed written by Joanne Seiff, a contributor to CBC.ca who taught technical writing to graduate students at UM.

 

A thriving research university makes our province money. PricewaterhouseCoopers’s recent report, commissioned by the University of Manitoba, shows that UM generates $1.50 for every $1 spent. That’s a successful long-term investment strategy. Want to boost the profit further? Invest in graduate and undergraduate research funding.

Most of the university’s research is done by graduate students.

These students provide hours of lab work and raw data. Professors use this to advance their research. This is an exchange: Professors mentor student researchers while the students provide hard work. It’s inherently unequal. Students are often underpaid or volunteer to gain this experience from an expert in their field.

True, some graduate students receive funding from Research Manitoba or the University of Manitoba Graduate Fellowships. However, many depend on their supervisors’ grants for financial support. While graduate students may earn a small stipend for their research and teaching efforts, in Manitoba, there’s no way a person can live on the funds provided. It’s such a small amount that many grad students carry huge debt. They live in illegal rooming houses and eat ramen in order to survive. They struggle through their degrees…all while working as part of their training. They teach Manitoba’s undergraduates and their lab work contributes to Manitoba’s research profits.

Some professors recognize the system’s fundamental inequities. It takes advantage of students desperate to get ahead. Further, the system turns out far more PhDs and master’s degrees than the economy supports. Overqualified graduates resort to taking jobs that don’t use their skills when they’ve finished their degrees in order to pay off debts.

Some feel the system is unethical. Yet, to compete for federal grants that keep academic research programs afloat, professors must keep taking on graduate students in a flawed cycle.

Manitobans could profit further from our university investments. We could keep more professionals, trained in province…and these people might build new businesses, provide research, health care and innovative technologies to fuel our future.

Instead, the province, donors or private businesses could invest in our intellectual future. Create a grant funding program for research. It might offer qualified graduate students a life-sustaining wage while they do their training here. This wouldn’t make Manitoba a ground-breaking leader. It would bring our academic research and teaching programs in line with other provinces.

Second, provide student housing opportunities that don’t require top-dollar market rates. The undeveloped golf course lands near the University should offer dorms and student family housing. This would provide subsidized options for graduate students who choose Manitoba to do their training.

One current approach to resolve housing problems involves building new student housing spaces, such as “the Arc,” with many amenities. These will cost around $1000 a bed per month. This is far beyond the reach of most graduate students.

City Councillor Janice Lukes acknowledges in a quote from the Winnipeg Free Press on November 4th that “Sure, if kids only have 500 bucks (per month), they’re still going to live in these other accommodations.” No, “the Arc” won’t fix the rooming house problems.

Third, academic graduate program models should be adjusted. It’s unethical to churn out academic graduate degrees if the economy doesn’t adequately compensate individuals who spend many years obtaining highly specialized levels of training.

This might require both a provincial and federal component. It’s unusual to suggest that it’s only appropriate to train a limited number of PhDs in any field—so that they could all be employed appropriately afterwards. To accomplish this, the federal grant funding programs must stop counting graduate student numbers as an essential research success marker. Rather, why not recognize and fund valuable undergraduate research opportunities instead?

Finally, by creating a fair and equitable graduate student pay scale for those who come to Manitoba, we might encourage more people to stay. People smart enough to earn a master’s degree or PhD have valuable analysis, research and IT skills to offer, but only if they stay here when their degrees are complete.

Currently, it’s not surprising when these graduates leave to find jobs elsewhere. Why stay in Winnipeg after incurring debt, living in illegal housing, and training Manitobans’ undergraduates for ridiculously low pay? If I were in this situation, I’d leave, too.

No one wants to spend 5 years or more far from home, earning subpar wages, unless there is a brighter future ahead.

Everyone benefits if Manitobans fix our funding priorities around academic research. It’s time for a change. It starts with paying intelligent people fairly for their work…and offering them affordable and legal housing so they can create a life in Manitoba.

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