Interconnected impacts of COVID-19 on graduate students

As the COVID-19 pandemic crawls into its third month in Canada, graduate students find themselves in a complex web of uncertainty. The pandemic has intensified many of the stressors of graduate student life and exacerbated the precarious position of many students.

In addition to financial challenges and concerns about degree completion, many students are experiencing stress and anxiety related to cost of living, loss of income and increasing demands as parents, children and community members.

Although the federal government announced the Canada Emergency Student Benefit, the benefit falls short of meeting the financial needs of many graduate students.

In the case of international students, in addition to being separated from their families and community supports, many are not eligible to apply for the benefit, leaving them feeling excluded from government and university responses.

For these reasons, Canadian graduate students have been asking university leaders and administrators for institutional responses that are comprehensive as well as compassionate, so that they are able to stay strong through the pandemic and continue to be the backbone of Canadian research and development.

The larger context of student finance

In Toronto, there have been multiple initiatives by social science students to better understand the impact of the pandemic on graduate student life. While financial concerns were indeed the number one point of stress for students, these initiatives, which include surveys, revealed how the interconnectedness of large, complex university systems affect students’ lives, where the removal of one piece threatens the overall stability of students’ precarious lives.

While the specifics vary with each student, many of the themes are the same.

For full-time graduate students who receive funding support, their funding is often a combination of grants and guaranteed employment.

Many saw their employment-related funding end on 30 April and the opportunities for research and teaching assistantships have reduced over the summer months.

For those with employment contracts over the summer term, increased caregiving responsibilities (for instance, children or sick relatives) as a result of the pandemic leave them with less time available to complete their work tasks.

Employment-related funding often enters students’ bank accounts automatically. To an outsider to university life, this might seem great since students still get paid whether they get the job done or not.

Under normal circumstances, those automatic payments are essential to ensure some financial security for graduate students as they are not penalised if their supervisor does not have enough work to assign them. However, graduate programmes place limits on the number of years students receive funding.

A work term where little is accomplished will have negative repercussions for one’s academic career and places students in a perpetual cycle of anxiety over incomplete work. For instance, a semester in which money is received but less work is accomplished means students risk reaching the end of their funding without having done the necessary work to complete their degree (for instance, coursework, field work, data analysis etc).

Another source of stress stems from the competitive nature of graduate student life, where each step on the graduate journey should contribute to a robust CV.

In some cases, when graduate students have expressed these concerns, they have been encouraged by peers, faculty and administrators to simply take an official ‘Leave of Absence’ and resume their studies once the pandemic passes. For many students, however, a leave of absence would be detrimental to their ability to complete their programmes.

For funded students, this would result in a complete loss of income. For international students, ‘taking a semester off’ has visa implications and may require leaving the country. Moreover, for students who live in university housing and residences, taking a break would jeopardise their housing situation.

In a city like Toronto, with the sixth highest rental market in the world, this presents a huge problem with devastating consequences. For student parents, losing housing means changing school zones and not having access to the community support available through the university.

Often, these large, complex university machines show little awareness of the way such systems are interconnected and the impact on students’ lives. For example, residents of a university student family residence in Toronto recently received notice of their annual rent increase, with no broader conversation about the crisis brought forth by the global pandemic.

A way forward

Repeatedly, students indicate that they need an institutional response that is both compassionate and comprehensive. Rather than the polarised options of full work or full withdrawal, they need the university to support them in finding the middle ground.

While some university administrators have indicated that the universities’ approach will be flexible, these responses are often based on an individualised case-by-case basis.

In the context of a global pandemic that has affected us all, this individualised approach creates additional pressure on students to prove their case.

Instead, students are asking for collective solutions that centre on equity as the university adjusts to the changes brought by the pandemic. The well-being of graduate students depends on the university responding with flexibility, but also consideration for the interconnectedness of different systems on students’ lives.

Diana M Barrero Jaramillo is a PhD student at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, Canada. Her work in community-based education and research draws from transnational approaches to memorialisation of violence in post-conflict societies. Grace Karram Stephenson is a post-doctoral fellow in the department of leadership, higher and adult education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto, Canada. E-mail: