Fund more PhDs, not more generous ones

The start of the autumn semester has long been the busiest season for Canadian universities. Institutions are welcoming students and starting classes as the new academic year begins. But for graduate students across the country, autumn is also the deadline to apply for provincial and federal research grants, causing many a sleepless night.

These scholarships are awarded for excellence and allow students to proceed through their studies unhindered by tuition costs and work-related obligations. Federal research grants in particular provide large amounts of multi-year funding and are considered to be prestigious career-boosters.

But a recent study suggests that the amount of funding might not be as important to student success as integration into productive research activities.

Federal-provincial divide

Research funding in Canada has been a changing landscape over the past 20 years. As is often the case in the Canadian context, the complexity of federal-provincial jurisdiction plays a role.

Historically, the provinces have been responsible for higher education and the federal government had little say over how the provinces, and subsequently universities, used the financial transfers.

However, the 1990s saw an increased involvement in research funding by the federal government, responding to the global climate of national excellence and ranking.

By the early 2000s the federal tri-council for research funding was established with the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).

Currently these funding bodies work directly with researchers at universities and other institutions, contributing over a billion dollars to fund successful applicants around the country.

For graduate students, federal funding from these councils can provide multi-year scholarships up to 25% higher than their provincial counterparts. Departments invest significant effort in training students to prepare and submit applications.

Some institutions even mandate that students submit yearly applications until they are successful. Interestingly, this requirement is made of students who already receive institutional scholarships to complete their degrees.

Since these individuals cost the institution more money than their fee-paying colleagues, institutions press them to secure federal scholarships. With continual pressure to acquire funding, federal applications have become a defining feature of Canadian graduate education.

Does funding make a difference?

There is no doubt that federal funding is coveted by students across the nation more than the provincial or institutional alternatives. But does it really make a difference? A recent study that explored the research impact, publications and completion rates of all graduate students in Quebec may suggest an answer.

The research project examined 27,397 doctoral students who studied in the province between 2000 and 2007. It found that funding did contribute to degree completion for the majority of students.

But there was little difference between students who were funded federally or provincially. Where there was a visible difference in the data was between students who had published and those who had not.

Publishing – the long-time hallmark of research contributions – appeared to be linked to successful degree completion for students across funding levels. The author suggests that this is because students are actively participating in the research process. In other words, funding makes a difference, but the amount of funding is less important than a productive connection to research.

These findings offer advice to governments and students alike.

Governments should fund more doctoral students, rather than just increase the amount of funding to an elite few. And students should spend less time on grant applications and more time developing solid contributions to their field.

* Grace Karram Stephenson is a higher and international education specialist with the Comparative, International and Development Education Centre in the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto in Canada.