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Striking Grad Students on What It's Like to Live on $15,000 a Year

Spoiler: it fucking sucks.

by Tannara Yelland
Mar 27 2015, 3:23pm

The picket line at the University of Toronto. Photo via Flickr user OFL Communications

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

As the strikes at both York and the University of Toronto move into their second month, anyone following the news knows that one of the main issues for U of T students is their guaranteed funding package of $15,000 per year. That's technically the minimum amount of funding, although few students (at least in the arts and humanities) get more than that. Living on $15,000 for an entire year in Toronto means living several thousand dollars below the low-income cutoff, which is another frequently mentioned piece of information. But what does that mean? It may sound nearly impossible to live on such a tight budget, but clearly some people manage to do it out of necessity. We spoke to three U of T students on strike right now about how they manage to survive on such a paltry income.

Some helpful numbers

  • There are 15,000 graduate students at U of T, of whom about 6,000 are currently on strike.
  • The poverty line in Toronto was $23,298 for a single adult with no dependents in 2011.
  • Just under 3,900 new Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) grants were awarded in 2013-14. In that same year there were 61,530 masters and PhD students in the "social sciences and humanities research community."
  • Graduate students are guaranteed a minimum funding package of their tuition plus $15,000 for the first four to five years of their studies, depending on the department. After that, they have to pay both living expenses and full tuition either out of pocket or from whatever teaching and research positions they're able to secure.
  • Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) 3902 Unit 1 is on strike right now. Unit 1 represents all students and post-doctoral fellows employed at U of T in teaching capacities.

Jessica Thorp—second-year drama PhD
Quite frankly, you can only survive in this program by incurring a lot of debt. I ran out of money last summer. I was like, 'I don't know how I'm supposed to pay rent or eat or do anything for the next four months.' When you're getting lump sums of grant money in September and January, and you're only making wages in between, it's really hard to make ends meet. After April I won't get any money again until September. But you also can't apply for EI, because you're still technically a student over the summer. So I end up taking the lump sum in September and paying down whatever debt I incurred over the summer, and then I don't end up actually keeping any money out of the January amount, because I use it to pay my tuition for both semesters.

In my cohort, there's eight of us. Everybody had partners at the beginning of our program, but everybody who wasn't married has since broken up. I think that's really interesting; it speaks to the stresses of grad school and what it does to you. This would be very, very, extremely difficult to do without family support. You're basically living hand-to-mouth, and constantly paycheck-to-paycheck.

Contractually, I should be working about ten hours a week for the class I'm TA-ing this year. But almost every single week it's more than that, and when you're marking, it's a lot more than that. You have to attend the lectures for the class, and then the tutorials themselves. And then my prep time for the classes: I probably spend four to five hours marking their weekly assignments. Also time spent in office hours, and emailing with students—I mean, that in and of itself feels like a full-time job. And then there's marking. I think in my contract I'm given 25 minutes per essay for marking. It's the B-grade and below papers that are very time-consuming to mark because you need to find the things that are wrong with it, but also the constructive things about it. The stuff that's really amazing or really awful? Quick mark. The stuff that's in the middle, which is most of it, is very time-consuming to mark, and part of this is because I care about my students and I want them to succeed, so I spend time on their work.

For a typical week I would say I'm spending 15 hours on my TA work on the low end, sometimes up to 25. And then I have my own coursework and research. And I also have to be a research assistant for a professor in my department. The time commitment for that really varies. The breakdown of all of those roles would probably be something like at least 10-15 hours a week minimum for each of those roles, and probably more like 20 hours a week. And at the PhD level, they expect us to be presenting at conferences, so when I'm working on conference papers, that sort of thing, I could be looking, easily, at an 80-hour work-week. Easily. And that's not remarkable.

My take on what's happening at U of T and what's happening at York is that none of these are new issues. But I think that graduate programs, as they're getting larger and larger, students are feeling like they've done all the right things, undergrad degrees, masters, now PhDs, but they don't feel valued. Universities have basically created an academic underclass who do the majority of the teaching. And I understand why people are frustrated. I'm frustrated. I'm really angry. And I love teaching, I would love to be a professor. But will I ever be able to do that? I don't know. Because once I'm finished all of this, I'm still going to have to, at some point, pay off all the student debt that I've incurred. When all is said and done, I'm going to be $70,000 in debt, probably, and working sessional jobs. Something doesn't quite add up there. Our knowledge is not valued, and I don't understand why an academic system would do this, other than to create serfs.

It's also interesting: there's a new Times Higher Education ranking that came out, and U of T is now ranked as the 16th-best university in the world. So they're boasting about this, about the prestige of the university. I think that's something to be taken into account: If U of T cares that much about prestige on the international stage, they need to be willing to compensate the students who are also doing much of the teaching and research that brings that prestige.

U of T picket line. Photo via Flickr user OFL Communications.

Emil Marmol—social justice education PhD at OISE*
I'm from California, which is a fairly expensive place to live. So when I came here, I thought, "OK. I can live on the funding package. I can make do. Plus, Toronto's probably not that expensive, right?" Well, no. I've discovered that's not the case. Living on $15,000 has meant that I have really had to actively restrict how I live my life. In my first year here, if I was invited out to eat with my friends, I would tuck a cheap protein bar in my pocket and have that at the restaurant, and just say that I wasn't hungry.

It's also meant that I've had to live in housing that is what I would consider substandard. I had to look for a very long time to find something that was not only reasonable in price but also reasonable in quality. And I am a PhD student, I'm a mature student. I just turned 40. It's just not the way that I'm used to living. When summer came around after my first year, I came awfully close to actually running out of money, and I became very distressed. Fortunately, a good friend of mine allowed me to move in with her. She had this small little bedroom and offered it to me. Which was great, but otherwise I don't know what I would have done. I was saved by her good graces.

So for that summer, I scrambled to get a job, because I thought if I couldn't get a job, I didn't know what I was going to do. I wasn't going to last through the summer. I was lucky enough to get a job working in another capacity at the university, which is great because I'm managing to supplement my income. However, supplementing my income has meant I have less time to focus on my own work. My first year here, I completed all my coursework. But ever since taking on another job, it's been hard. My comps [comprehensive exam, part of the PhD process] are due at the end of this summer, and I'm trying very hard to get them done, but since I've had to take additional employment, I have to split my time and I just don't know if that's going to happen.

In addition to impacting how long I'll be working on my degree, it's also affected my future career prospects. There was this great summer institute put on at McMaster that I really wanted to go to. I talked to the organizers, they reduced the fees greatly, but even then I couldn't attend. I just couldn't fit it into my budget.

Our level of pay is also impacting my personal and family life. My partner, who's also a grad student at the university, has had a child, and because of the low wages we make, even with both of our salaries combined or our funding combined, we can't get to California so my mom can meet her grandchild. It's been a major source of stress for us, for my mom, for my partner. My partner really wants to get to know my mom better. My mom really wants to meet the child. She freaks out, she cries, she says things like, "I'm watching the baby grow over Skype! I want to see the baby!" It's crushing, emotionally, to hear her talk like that.

In my collective contract for my second job it stipulates that I'm allowed one month of paid parental leave if I or my partner has a child. Well, I took my one month paid parental leave in November, and the university has been stonewalling. After repeated communications between the union and that department, from what I've seen on emails it's gone on to labor relations at human resources in the university, and now they've been stalling. Parental leave pay is a way to keep getting paid with no gap, because if there's a gap you're screwed, basically. And here we are, it's almost April, and the employer still hasn't paid out my one month of parental leave pay. As you can imagine, this has put a very heavy tax on my partner and on myself. She's on academic leave, so she's not receiving any funding and she's not able to do any work. So we're relying on my income, which is almost impossible to do, and then on top of that, the employer is withholding one month of my pay. I don't know when I'm going to see that money. I don't know what the law is around this, but some kind of action should be taken against the employer. You can't withhold wages like this.

*Emil is not on strike through his program, which is not represented by CUPE 3902, but he does receive the same amount of funding. He is a part of CUPE 3902 Unit 1 through his second job on campus.

Flags from union chapters walking the picket line in solidarity. Photo via Flickr user OFL Communications.

Noa Shaindlinger—seventh-year Middle Eastern studies PhD
If you're doing ethnographic work like I am, you have to do about two years of fieldwork. So my program does two years of coursework; the third year is your comprehensive examination; and then your fourth and fifth years are in the field. So your funding runs out before you even begin to write your dissertation, which takes a few years. I'm in year seven. In order to support myself, I had to teach courses, which obviously held me back. So the position of students, particularly upper-year students who are out of the funded cohort, is particularly dire. We have to pay tuition, and we're not funded, and we have to support ourselves.

A lot of us have families, and a lot of us are also at the same time trying to apply for post-docs. In recent years there's been an influx of new PhDs, [but] there are not enough tenure-track positions at universities for everybody. So a lot of us have to look for something called a post-doctorate: you're not a student, you're not faculty. You're there for a year or two to do research. You get a stipend and often you have to teach a course or two. Because it takes a very long time between the time of applying for a post-doc and the final stages of being accepted anywhere, a lot of us are applying while we're still "ABD," which is all-but-dissertation. So we're still in the process of writing our dissertations while we're going through the process of these applications.

Surviving on $15,000 in Toronto is pretty much impossible. I was lucky because one year, when I was still funded, I taught a course, and because of my contract a portion of that pay was on top of my funding. But it is incredibly hard to survive on that little, even if you have a top up like I had that one year. Looking back, I have no idea how I did this. I have no idea.

The $15,000 the university offers in funding, that's not free money: you have to work as a teaching assistant for a certain portion. Sometimes you manage to get a little more in terms of internal rewards: $2,000 here, $3,000 there. I had a SSHRC, which was $20,000, but it's not like you get $20,000 in addition to your funding. I'm basically not seeing that money, it just looks nice on my resume. Every year, I take out a student loan. I get the maximum amount, which is about $18,000, which of course is still not enough to live on and pay tuition. So I need to TA, I need to teach courses. Last year I did both at the same time, TA and teach a course, which of course left zero time for me to write.

I think that the problem is obviously systemic. It's not just about $2,000 less or $2,000 more. It really is about living wages: what is a living wage in Toronto, and why are no graduate students making them? No graduate students I know are ever, ever making any kind of living wage. Why are we doomed to be steeped in debt for many years to come? Why don't the funding packages actually correspond to the average number of years it takes to finish a PhD program? Those are just a few of the questions that need to be addressed. And I think this strike in particular is really about the university trying to break organized labour on campus, and we're trying to respond and not lose this war of attrition.

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