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Rethinking the ‘Canada-First’ approach to graduate funding

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Canada has a Nationalistic approach to supporting scientific training. Outside of the prestigious Vanier awards, international students studying at Canadian institutions are ineligible for the graduate scholarships offered by Tri-council* agencies. While this may appear prejudicial, affordances have been made to allow funds to flow selectively to domestic students. In Ontario for example, the Human Rights Commission determined that a citizenship/residency requirement for scholarship eligibility is not discriminatory “when adopted for the purpose of fostering and developing participation in cultural, educational, trade union or athletic activities” (section 16[2]). It is worth noting that this problem is not uniquely Canadian; for example, F31 predoctoral scholarships in the US are similarly limited to citizens/permanent residents. However, there is a substantial divide between common practice and best practice.

The Ontario Graduate Scholarship program does extend eligibility to international graduate students. However, the number of awards allocated to international applicants leaves something to be desired. In the 2023-2024 OGS competition, for example, Western University was allocated 288 awards to support domestic students and 8 awards to support international students (~2.7% of the available pool). To put this in perspective, international students make up more than 20% of our graduate student complement.

These policies are deeply problematic for a number of reasons. However, I will limit discussion here to the impacts on research team diversity, and our ability to compete internationally in research and innovation - two issues that governments and universities themselves commonly identify as priority areas of concern.

A challenge to research team diversity

Canada’s research councils readily acknowledge the benefits of constructing diverse and inclusive research teams. For example, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) maintains a ‘guide on integrating equity, diversity and inclusion considerations in research’; one of the stated aims of this document is to encourage reflection on how research teams cas be strengthened by steps to create an equitable and inclusive environment with diverse team members. NSERC asks researchers to reflect on how they recruit for positions within their research teams, and how they can create research environments that best support team members of diverse backgrounds. They argue that:

“High-performing collaborative research teams are created and maintained when team diversity (broadly defined) is effectively fostered and interpersonal skills are taught and practiced… High-performing collaborative research teams consist of diverse members who are committed to common outcomes. Diversity is a multidimensional factor that includes not only gender, ethnicity, religious beliefs, career stage, personality, socioeconomic class, life experiences, viewpoints and skills, but also how people represent and solve problems. (Cheruvelil et al. 2014)”

It stands to reason that demographic diversity would add to the intellectual diversity of a research team (i.e., that individuals with varied lived experience might broaden the range of perspectives applied to the problem of the day). However, restricting scholarship eligibility limits diversity by disadvantaging international applicants. For example, models of funding differ a great deal across institutions, faculties, and departments. In some areas, students receive direct financial support from their faculty/department and/or through teaching assistantships. In other areas, stipends are drawn from research grants held by the student’s supervisor. In the latter case, there is a strong incentive to select those students most likely to obtain independent funding (thus returning tens of thousands of dollars back to the team’s operational budget). Thus, international applicants’ ineligibility for major scholarships puts them at a disadvantage relative to domestic students, and presents a practical challenge to building a diverse research team.

A challenge to competitiveness in research and innovation

Outside of financial considerations, restrictions on international graduate student funding also prohibit Canadian researchers from recruiting top candidates from the global applicant pool. This should be a major concern, as more than 95% of universities report that their strategic or long-term plans include or will include explicit references to internationalization and/or global engagement (AUCC, 2014). Many strong applicants with ambitions toward an academic career learn early that their future success will depend, in part, on their ability to garner research awards early in their career. This phenomenon, often referred to as the Matthew Effect, pervades academia. Indeed, a recent analysis of NSERC awards data from undergraduate summer research awards through the agency’s top prizes found evidence that early acknowledgement predicts subsequent success in the Canadian research funding ecosystem (Frederickson, 2022).

That the rich get richer should come as no surprise - the concept is baked into the way awards are adjudicated. For example, the doctoral award rubric provided by the Tri-council assigns 50% of a candidate’s score based on experience and achievements obtained within and beyond academia - ‘scholarships, awards, and distinctions’ is provided as the first example of what should be considered when evaluating an application. Thus, the Tri-council endorses a system in which early awards predict future successes, but precludes international students from accessing early awards. As a result, students are forced to choose between studying in their home country where they may be eligible for scholarship support, or studying internationally where they will forfeit that opportunity. This poses an obvious challenge to attracting the best students to our institutions; moreover, it limits the pool of highly trained personnel that might be retained across a breadth of economic sectors after graduation.

Moving forward

Restricting international students’ access to graduate awards has serious implications for the composition of research teams, and the competitiveness of Canadian institutions. While many large-scale funding initiatives have adapted well to the internationalization of research and innovation (e.g., the New Frontiers Research Fund, Global Grand Challenges Network), our graduate funding mechanisms have failed to keep pace. A significant challenge to expanding graduate award eligibility to international students is a need for reciprocity. A program whereby the Canadian government supports applicants from countries that don’t offer support to Canadian students is likely to be a tough sell. Thus, efforts to reform graduate award eligibility may need to be undertaken in coordination with international partners. With our institutions and governments focussed on leading the internationalization of education and the global economy, now may be the time to pursue ambitious reforms.

*The Tri-council comprises the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), and Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR).

Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada. (2014). Canada’s universities in the world: AUCC Internationalization Survey.

Cheruvelil KS, Soranno PA, Weathers KC, Hanson PC, Goring SJ, Filstrup CT, Read EK. (2014). Creating and maintaining high-performing collaborative research teams: the importance of diversity and interpersonal skill. Macrosystems Ecology 12:31-38.

Frederickson M. (2022). The Matthew Effect in NSERC funding. Broadening Representation and Equity With Science (BREWS).

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