Canadian PhD students and postgrads plan mass walkout over low pay

Scientists in Ottawa call for an increase in funding for graduate students and postdoctoral researchers during a rally in 2022.Credit: The Canadian Press/Alamy

Graduate students and postdoctoral researchers at dozens of universities and research institutions across Canada are planning to walk out on 1 May in protest at government-funded salaries that have remained flat since 2003.

“Pay for grad students hasn’t increased in 20 years, while there has been 50% inflation over the same period,” says Sarah Laframboise, a biochemistry PhD student at the University of Ottawa and executive director of Support Our Science, a student-led campaign group that is organizing the walkout.

Scholarships from the federal government provide an annual stipend of Can$17,500 (US$12,800) for master’s degree students, either $23,000 or $35,000 for PhD students, and $45,000 for postdoctoral fellowships. That leaves many researchers in a precarious financial position, says Laframboise. A survey that she and her colleagues conducted of more than 1,000 Canadian graduate students found that almost half of respondents either frequently struggled to make ends meet or were forced to make sacrifices to afford necessities, and 30% had considered leaving their studies because of financial hardship1.

“The government is losing talent during a labour shortage, because they are not investing in research in Canada,” says Samy-Jane Tremblay, president of the Quebec Student Union, who is organizing the walkout at six institutions in Montreal. “People are leaving research or going to the US or Europe, where pay is better.”

Canada’s science minister, François-Philippe Champagne, did not respond to a request for comment from Nature’s news team.

Overdue pay rise

Support our Science has three main demands. First, it wants master’s scholarships to increase in value to $25,900 (a rise of 48%), postdoctoral fellowships to increase to $59,200, and the two levels of PhD scholarship to be equalized at $35,000. Second, it wants a 50% increase in the number of scholarships funded each year, and a doubling in the number of fellowships. Finally, it wants the size of federal research grants to increase by 50%, to allow professors to increase pay for students and postdocs who do not have a federal scholarship. The organization says that these demands are in line with recommendations from the government’s own advisory panel on the research-support system, which published its report in March.

Although only a small proportion of graduate students and postdoctoral researchers in Canada are funded through federal scholarships and fellowships, Laframboise says that Support Our Science made a strategic decision to focus on this funding. Federal scholarship levels are taken as an unofficial benchmark for what students should be paid by the provinces, universities and other organizations that fund students and postdocs, she adds.

“In lieu of any other system to set standards for stipends, universities tend to default to what the federal government provides, and set their stipends slightly lower,” she says. The hope is that an increase in federal funding will generate momentum for pay rises across the whole system.

Supporting students

It is not just students who will be protesting. Marc Johnson is a biologist at the University of Toronto and is helping to organize the walkout there. He has seen firsthand the effect of the flattening in scholarship funding. “I was one of the first to get these federal scholarships in 2003,” he says. “And 20 years later they are still getting the same amount.”

Johnson says that this has made it harder to recruit students in recent years. His university has had to set its own stipends higher to deal with the rising cost of living, but many postgraduate students still struggle.

Universities also recognize the needs of their postgraduate scholars. “[Our] continued success in attracting top students rests on our ability to provide competitive graduate student financial support,” a spokesperson for McGill University in Montreal said in a statement. They added that in the 2022—2023 academic year, the university boosted its pool of funding for graduate student support by $7 million, to nearly $28 million, to help “keep McGill’s graduate financial support competitive”.

Support Our Science has been advocating for higher pay for the past year. Last August, the organization delivered an open letter with almost 7,000 signatures to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. In interviews last year on CBC radio and at the Canadian Science Policy Conference in Ottawa, in November, minister Champagne indicated that he supported the request, and hinted that the government would soon act on it. But Canada’s 2023 federal budget, outlined in March, did not mention any changes to funding levels for research scholarships and fellowships.

Walkouts are currently planned at 46 universities and research institutes across the country, and Laframboise expects thousands of people to take part. In Ottawa, participants will march to Parliament Hill, while in Toronto they will gather outside the constituency office of finance minister Chrystia Freeland. In Montreal, researchers will join a large march by trade unions, held each year on 1 May. “Together we will be a bigger force,” says Tremblay.