Statistics Canada has released its annual report on university tuition fees, and in all but three provinces, the news for graduate students is not good. But as students prepare to face the rising costs of a higher education in Canada this year, one university is implementing a strategy to ensure that its Ph.D. students have the resources to complete their studies.

According to the report, the average graduate tuition fee in 2001/2002 is $4360, a 9.8% increase from the previous academic year. "Graduate program fees have on average gone up at a higher rate (11.2%) in the last 5 years than undergraduate fees (6.3%)," says Statistics Canada analyst Peter Elliott. Fiscal restraint on the part of universities--the result of years of reduced federal and provincial funding--has been blamed for the increases. This assumption is reinforced by another recent Statistics Canada report--this one on university finances--which states that universities have raised the contribution of all tuition fees to total university revenue from 9% to 16% in the last decade (see sidebar).

In their university finances report, Statistics Canada found that universities have doubled their expenditure on scholarships and bursaries in the last decade to partly offset the rising cost of tuition. But according to Anita Zaenker, national executive representative of the BC chapter of the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), this is not enough to compete with the troubling trend of rising graduate student tuition fees. Zaenker points out that 3 years of deregulated fees for graduate and professional programs in Ontario and Alberta have resulted in "skyrocketing tuition fees," ultimately reducing accessibility to education in those provinces.

"Studies conducted at the Universities of Guelph, Waterloo, and Western Ontario have demonstrated that deregulation has had an impact on the demographics of their enrolment," according to Joel Duff, the Ontario chairperson of the CFS, such that "students from lower-income backgrounds have almost dropped off the radar screen." The CFS continues to lobby the Ontario government for re-regulation of tuition fees and is launching a campaign this year to "freeze the fees in Ontario."

The national picture, however, is not reflected in the local figures. In fact, when the average graduate tuition fee figure is broken down, the data show that changes in grad student stipends depend very much on where you live. In some provinces, tuition costs have been frozen or even reduced, whereas fees have increased anywhere from 2% to 13% in others.

Newfoundland's Memorial University, for example, managed to reduce last year's graduate tuition fee by 10%. And the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University reduced their fees by 5%, continuing a trend that began in 1996 when the BC government agreed to compensate the universities for lost revenues.

With the support of their provincial governments, public universities in Manitoba and Quebec have also managed to freeze 2001/2002 fees for graduate students at the 2000/2001 level. Quebec graduate students now pay the lowest fees in the country--$800 at Concordia University and $1668 at McGill, for instance. The frozen fee only applies to Quebec citizens, however; out-of-province graduate students will have to pay more than double in-province tuition fees at most Quebec universities this fall.

The remaining provinces have increased grad tuition fees at most universities. The University of Saskatchewan takes the biscuit with a whopping 13% increase. But Dalhousie University remains the most expensive, with pure and applied science grad students paying upwards of $6100 per year in tuition. By comparison, the University of Toronto, Canada's largest university, increased tuition for graduate science students by 5% to $4936.

The ongoing tuition increases raise the average debt load of students in this country, and they make it more difficult for students to graduate on time. Higher tuition inevitably puts more financial pressure on students, and many students are obliged to take on part-time work in order to make ends meet, thereby further delaying their studies.

In a move unprecedented in Canada, the University of Toronto has taken a significant step to alleviate some of the financial burdens grad students bear. The university will spend $11 million this year to implement a guaranteed level of financial support for graduate students. Every student enrolled in a doctoral-stream program will receive funding from the university equal to their tuition and incidental fees ($5600) as well as a minimum stipend of $12,000 every year for the 5 years of their program. Students in the Life and Physical Sciences--an estimated 1700 of them--will receive a stipend of $15,000, bringing the total level of guaranteed support to $20,600 per year, according to Pekka Sinervo, vice dean in the Faculty of Arts and Science. The university aims to raise $100 million for graduate student aid by 2004 through fundraising campaigns.

"In many ways it is an excellent initiative," says Joel Duff, Ontario chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students, "and for the first time in Canada, a segment of the student population is going have a guaranteed minimum standard in terms of accessibility."

Part of U of T's impetus in implementing these changes came from a task force on graduate student financial support, which found that doctoral-stream students at U of T received only two-thirds of the support their U.S. counterparts did--about $8000 compared to $12,000 after tuition costs. The new funding package is intended both to ensure that no graduate student will be prevented from completing a degree due to financial difficulties and to make the university more competitive in attracting top students.

"It's a good first step, but it doesn't address all of the issues that face graduate student funding," says Sinervo, who sat on the task force. "There are some students who take longer than 5 years to compete their doctoral studies, for legitimate reasons, and we still have to scramble to find resources for them," he adds. And what of the U of T tuition increase? "The fee schedule was set recognizing the financial priorities of the institution," Sinervo explains. "We have a multiyear, long-range plan and we unfortunately had to coordinate our tuition fees with what we are receiving from other sources, particularly the province."