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There’s been much ado about cuts to universities’ budgets lately.  During these discussions, like the one we’re having at U of S, administrators have said that everything is on the table in terms of a complete budgetary review.  Well, almost anything.

Decisions about salaries and benefits for senior administrators, including deans, is left to the board of governors and even though they have seen a zero per cent increase in salaries in recent years, to retain and attract the best employees they must be well compensated, said provost and vice-president academic Brett Fairbairn.

“We need to offer them competitive salaries,” Fairbairn told reporters after the forum.

The Star Phoenix, 26 February 2013

So why the double-standard when it comes to salaries for presidents, but not post-docs?  VPs of Research, but not PhD candidates?  I should say that I’m emphatically not in favour of massive salaries relative to a group, like the CERC program ($10 million over 7 years, plus outrageous employment negotiations), or Canada’s Vanier CGS Scholarships (valued at $50,000 for three years; this is 25% more than I make as an NSERC postdoc).  But I’m also not in favour of flat-lining graduate student stipends, especially those from the TriCouncil (NSERC, SSHRC, and CIHR).

So, let’s look at data from NSERC:


Unadjusted annual salaries from NSERC

On the face of it, things look good – there’s been a fairly consistent (and sometimes increasing) level of support for all 3 categories (post-doc, Ph.D., and M.Sc.).  But let’s not forget about that pesky financial concept of “inflation”.


NSERC salaries adjusted for inflation (in 2002 dollars)

Oh dear.  That’s not quite so good, is it?  This is based on the Canada-wide Consumer Price Index, where everything is expressed in 2002 dollars.  The result is a 2.2% increase for postdocs over 1996 levels, and drops of 11% for Ph.Ds and 18% for M.Scs.

But recall, too, that the CPI varies by location.  I arbitrarily chose 3 cities: Saskatoon, Toronto, and Fredericton, and looked up their CPI to compare among cities.  In this case, each city’s CPI is relative to 2002 values.  That’s not saying that you could buy something for the same price in all three, mind you (we’ll get to that in a moment).


Post-doc salaries from NSERC adjusted for inflation in 3 Canadian cities (in 2002 dollars)


Ph.D. salaries from NSERC adjusted for inflation in 3 Canadian cities (in 2002 dollars)


M.Sc. salaries from NSERC adjusted for inflation in 3 Canadian cities (in 2002 dollars)

We can clearly see the effect of the “Saskatchewan boom” (and note that I could only get CPI data from Fredericton back to 2008).  I’m going to focus on Saskatoon because that’s where I live.  Here’s the relative change in salaries from 1996-2012:

  • PDF: –27%
  • Ph.D.: –36%
  • M.Sc.: –41%

Wow.  Even with NSERC’s periodic steps up in the salary, the value in real terms for students and postdocs at U of S has really gone down.  As a postdoc, I’m making $15,000 less in terms of purchasing power than someone who was a postdoc here in 1998.

We all know that some cities are “expensive” to live in, and that most of students’ (and to a lesser extent, postdocs’) budgets go to rent.  The vast majority of students and PDFs, being only resident in the city for a few years, rent rather than purchase a house (though some do).  Here are some numbers from the CMHC on the monthly rent of a 1-bedroom apartment:

Toronto: $1096
Moncton: $619*
Saskatoon: $815

* There are no CMHC data for Fredericton, but having lived in both Fredericton and the Moncton area, I can attest to their similar rents.

Let’s extrapolate that across a year, shall we?

Toronto: $13,152
Moncton: $7,428
Saskatoon: $9,780

I admit that these numbers are likely to be high since many students share multi-room apartments and houses, but it at least shows the relative differences among the cities.  Someone in Toronto will end up paying nearly twice that as someone from New Brunswick.  And this isn’t even considering things like the quality of the neighbourhood, access to transit, etc.

And let’s not forget that these are NSERC stipends. Students not supported by NSERC generally receive less in salary support.

So as Canada’s universities face massive budgetary shortfalls, and TriCouncil research funding is increasingly directed to “synergise with industry” for “maximising commercialisation potential” and shunted into multi-million-dollar chairs who spend 8 months of the year away from the university that hired them, let’s not forget that it’s often the students and postdocs that fuel much of Canada’s academic research. That is, when they’re not out looking for part-time work to make ends meet.

Faculty, staff, and administrators all get annual salary bumps (as negotiated individually or collectively), and to “to retain and attract the best”, you can bet your B.Sc. they’re not paying someone in Toronto the same as someone in Moncton.

NSERC’s total expenditures have doubled from 2001-02 to 2010-11, as has their proportional contribution to “People” (vs. Discovery Grants, administration and “Innovation”).  But why spread the jam so thinly over two slices of toast when you can spread it over one and actually taste it?  Why not tie NSERC’s stipend support to the CPI of the city where it will be held (with some minimum), and increase it with the rate of inflation?

There are about 1600 new NSERC scholars annually (1 year of support for M.Sc., 2-3 for Ph.D., 2 for PDF).  That’s roughly 9500 at any one time.  If they ditched the Canada Graduate Scholarships (a measly $200 more for a M.Sc., but $14,000 more/year for a Ph.D.), to bring everyone up to 2002 levels would cost roughly $6 million (based on roughly 200 PDFs, 2000 Ph.Ds, 850 M.Scs).  NSERC’s budget in 2010-11 was $1,075,987,000.  The bump up would be about 0.55% of their total budget.  Where would this money come from? By eliminating the two-tiered CGS.  Doing so would free up roughly $9,786,000.

It’s simple, smart, and effective. Perhaps that’s why it hasn’t been done.

Links to data sources:

NSERC salaries 1: http://www.nserc-crsng.gc.ca/_doc/FactsFigures-TableauxDetailles/2005-2006Tables_e.pdf

NSERC salaries 2: http://www.nserc-crsng.gc.ca/_doc/FactsFigures-TableauxDetailles/2010-2011Tables_e.pdf

Consumer Price Index (CPI): http://www.statcan.gc.ca/tables-tableaux/sum-som/l01/cst01/econ46a-eng.htm

Saskatoon CPI: http://www.stats.gov.sk.ca/stats/CPI/CPIHistoricalTables.pdf

Toronto CPI: http://www.opseu.org/research/cpitable3a.htm

Fredericton CPI: http://www.statcan.gc.ca/tables-tableaux/sum-som/l01/cst01/econ09e-eng.htm

1-bedroom apartments, Oct. 2012

Toronto: http://www.cmhc-schl.gc.ca/odpub/esub/64459/64459_2012_A01.pdf?fr=1363013309421

Fredericton: http://www.cmhc-schl.gc.ca/odpub/esub/64407/64407_2012_A01.pdf?fr=1363013273824

Saskatoon: http://www.cmhc-schl.gc.ca/odpub/esub/64443/64443_2012_A01.pdf?fr=1363013509843