Stipends for graduate students in Canada have not risen for 20 years. As a result, they face daily financial struggles and crippling debt, according to a student-run group. It also warns the research community is at risk from a shrinking student population and a less diverse workforce.

Almost 90% of graduate students say they are experiencing stress and anxiety about their finances, finds a national survey by the Ottawa Science Policy Network (OSPN), which received over 1300 responses. Almost a third have considered leaving their studies because of financial concerns.

The average annual stipend is around C$19,000 (£12,000) for master’s students and C$24,000 for PhD students. ‘This is well below the living wage, and students struggle to cover many expenses,’ says Sarah Laframboise, president of OSPN and a PhD biochemist at the University of Ottawa, who herself has racked up over C$100,000 in student debt and worked over 15 jobs during the past 11 years of post-secondary education. ‘We have heard cases of students who have been forced to live in their cars, since they cannot afford rent. Graduate students are left particularly vulnerable to record high inflation, as their pay is not tied to inflation in any capacity. This is unacceptable for our future leaders in science and innovation.’ OSPN is calling for a minimum stipend of C$25,000 for master’s students and C$35,000 for PhD students.

Funding for graduate students in Canada is complex and comes from multiple sources, involving federal and provincial agencies, and universities. Last autumn, the campaigning group Support Our Science – to which OSPN is affiliated – petitioned the government for a 48% increase in the value of graduate scholarships and postdoctoral fellowships awarded by the three federal granting agencies; and a 50% increase in their number.

Lobbying the federal government is the first step to fixing the problem, says Laframboise. ‘However, future work will have to be focused on the other ways that graduate students are paid, that is research grants, provincial awards and universities,’ she adds. Now, there is a ‘strong unified voice’ asking for these increases, she is hopeful that the government will provide some funding in the upcoming budget.

‘The government of Canada values the critical role of graduate students and trainees –Canada’s emerging researchers,’ Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED), a government body, said in a statement. ‘It recognises and understands that graduate students and trainees face increasing financial pressures that can be a barrier to their studies … and will work with stakeholders to enhance support for Canada’s current and future researchers, and top talent.’ ISED points out that the federal 2019 budget provided C$114 million over five years to the three federal granting agencies to create 500 more master’s level scholarships and 167 more three-year doctoral scholarships every year.

‘The survey’s results signal a crisis in Canada’s ability to support the development of the talent that we need to face the challenges around us,’ says Jeannette Whitton, a biologist at the University of British Columbia. ‘We need to be able to attract and develop the next generation of problem solvers. One way that we do that is through advanced academic training of graduate and postdoctoral scholars [who need] support to be able to focus. The survey makes it clear that financial insecurity is preventing talented individuals from focusing on becoming the experts we need.’

Whitton notes that the number of applicants for graduate and postdoctoral positions are declining, reflecting the realities of the funding situation. ‘But even for those with secure funding, the message is that Canada does not value your development as scholars. We’re seeing an exodus of scholars from Canada – people who go elsewhere for better-funded opportunities. These people may never return to Canada, and our ability to be leaders in innovation will suffer.’

If the situation continues, then only a certain type of person can pursue graduate education in Canada – those with money, Laframboise add. ‘We know that diversity is the foundation of innovation, and if we start systemically excluding people from pursuing research, then we will lose out on a vast diversity of opinions and ideas.’