Canadian doctoral candidates, who study in relative obscurity to advance the state of knowledge, are poorly remunerated (if they are remunerated at all). More doctoral candidates are receiving their degrees at the present time than ever before: federal and provincial funding agencies simply do not have the resources to keep up with demand. Nor do universities, who offer a measure of doctoral funding, have nearly enough to keep a professional researcher going for four-to-six years. Indeed, 54% of doctoral candidates graduating in 2015 carried debt over $25,000. These lucky few entered a saturated market, where some 37,000 doctors of philosophy are now teaching as full-time professors and 55,000 are in progress.
These are worrisome numbers that somewhat explain the steady decline of candidates’ persistence over the degree. Of the 2011/12 Canadian cohort of candidates for a Ph.D, 52% fulfilled degree requirements after six years.
The penible state of graduate education in Canada, and the correlated stress from which many doctoral candidates suffer, may be palliated if society recognizes doctoral research as employment. Such recognition valorizes the incredible sacrifices that doctoral candidates make for their research. It also acknowledges that doctoral research demands a candidate’s utter devotion in much the same way a profession demands devotion from its professors: we promote a mental health crisis by not rewarding candidates’ work in capitalist currency.
Changing social attitudes means re-framing the place of doctoral candidates in the university. We now consider candidates students: they are trainees registered at a university purely for their benefit. Ontario’s Employment Standards Act captures this point in no uncertain terms at section 3:
(5) This Act does not apply with respect to the following individuals and any person for whom such an individual performs work or from whom such an individual receives compensation:
2. An individual who performs work under a program approved by a college of applied arts and technology or a university.
Mark these words. They explain that the Act does not apply to a kind of labour, which means that students and candidates for degrees cannot claim to be employed for the purposes of minimum employment standards. These words are exceptional; other fields see employees protected even when they are learning on the job: the Act defines an ’employee’ to include ‘a person who receives training from a person who is an employer’ (s. 2). This definition would, but for section 3, capture doctoral candidates’ labour.
Some European doctoral candidates face no such obstacles. Austria, Belgium, Germany, and Switzerland pay their doctoral candidates over 40,000 Euros in yearly gross salaries. This wage is, at the very least, enough to pay for cost of living. Sweden also offers a monthly salary and frames doctorates as jobs with according status and remuneration. In 2006, Swedish doctoral candidates received an average salary of 2,365 Euros a month.
These may be modest figures for working professionals; they are far more than many Canadian doctoral scholars receive. A $40,000 annual salary for Canadian scholars is usually obtained after submitting to a competitive funding process, one that only accepts a few students a year.
Law offers great potential for shifting this model. The Employment Standards Act precludes doctoral candidates from the benefits of minimal employment standards. The Labour Relations Act in Ontario has no such quibbles.
Post-doctoral fellows and employees have been recognized under the LRA. The seminal case on this point is Canadian Union of Public Employees v Governing Council of the University of Toronto. CUPE applied to create a bargaining unit of post-doctoral fellows working at the University; the University replied that post-doctoral fellows were not employees under the LRA and therefore couldn’t unionize.
The Labour Relations Board ultimately decided for the union, and its rationale built upon earlier analyses from the late 1970s and early 1980s (viz. York University,  OLRB Rep. Sept. 683; Carleton University,  OLRB Rep. February 179; University of Ottawa,  OLRB Rep. February 232; York University,  OLRB Rep. May 601).
Certification decisions must determine an academic worker’s status: they must be employed. The Board described the problem in another decision, University of Western Ontario:
Having said that, the existence of the relationship of student to university cannot be ignored. The difficulty which arises is that the relationship of student to university as educator can bear many of the hallmarks of the relationship of employee to employer. That is, the educational relationship may explain the presence of what would otherwise be a hallmark of an employment relationship, and vice versa.Para. 52.
Employee status is determined by reference to the facts of each case. The student relationship, for example, can occupy the field, thus rendering any payments made between university and student a purely academic matter.
The University of Toronto case doesn’t deal with this point because post-doctoral fellows are admittedly not students. The University unsuccessfully attempted to argue that the fellows weren’t employees, but the Board put paid to this distinction:
The difficulty posed by cases like those of articling students, medical residents and graduate students is that the licensing or academic requirements imposed by an entity upon the individual seeking to be licensed or graduate may serve to explain all or some hallmarks of a relationship which would otherwise be an employment relationship with that entity: direction and control, performance of work, production of something of value, and receipt of income. This problem was canvassed in the University of Western Ontario decision in the excerpt set out above. In this case, however, there is no dispute that the University of Toronto does not have the power to licence or grant a degree per se to PDFs: PDFs are not graduate students. The Board’s past decisions with respect to the employment status of graduate students are thus of limited application to the case at hand.
The fact that the work performed by PDFs is of educational value to them as “academic trainees”, to use the term preferred by the University, is therefore irrelevant. The fact that work provides an opportunity to learn, even a continuous opportunity to learn, does not transform what would otherwise be an employment relationship into a non-employment relationship for the purposes of the Act. As argued by the Union, universities are typically a unique environment: one in which learning never comes to an end. The evidence before me clearly establishes that this is the case at the University of Toronto.
The fact is that the PDFs perform work in the University of Toronto’s labs, using the University’s equipment and materials, produce something of value, i.e. research, and receive compensation from the University for the performance of that work. These are all hallmarks of an employment relationship.
As noted, direction and control is another hallmark of an employment relationship. The significance of this factor in a particular case requires consideration of the nature of the work in question. For example, this Board has had no difficulty in concluding that professionals are employees for the purposes of the Act notwithstanding the fact that the nature of their work is such that they are subject to very little in the way of meaningful direction and control. The evidence established some variance in the degree of direction and control to which PDFs at the University of Toronto are subjected. Some are engaged to perform a very specific task. Some are given greater licence to explore a research area within the general parameters of the principal investigator’s research interests. But there is no question that in the day to day performance of the work itself, PDFs are subject to very little direction and control. In my view, this simply reflects the nature of the work: research within an academic setting. In this respect, the work performed by PDFs is not very different from the research work of the faculty for whom they perform the work, apart from the fact that they are subject to the general direction of those faculty in their capacity as principal investigators.Paras. 88-91, 102-3.
The distinction between student and employee is razor thin, and the Board here happily does not have to enter into this complicated relationship.
The Board did review the relationship in Western Ontario, where it found graduate students working under many of the criteria that constitute employment (para. 53). The Board, however, concluded that the educational relationship between student and university (largely in the STEM fields on the evidence in that case) provided the student with a preponderant advantage. The Board, however, left open the possibility that its decision could be revised:
Within the context of this analysis, the union’s position would require the assumption that only a graduate student’s work on his or her thesis or own research has educational value to the student. I do not accept this proposition. The union’s witnesses generally accepted that within the context of lab based disciplines, where collaborative research is the norm, there is something to be learned or gained from working with and supervising others and skills to be developed from maintaining and operating laboratory equipment which is not directly related to one’s own research. The problem with respect to activities of this nature may be one of degree. There may come a point where the performance of this work can no longer be said to be of sufficient educational value to the graduate student, and its required performance gives rise to an employment relationship.Para. 57.
This quotation begs the question: is doctoral candidates’ labour of sufficient value to the graduate student?
The question is best answered with a view toward outcomes. 55,000 doctorates are currently underway in Canada. If, say, 54% of current doctoral candidates obtain their degrees, the Canadian market is flooded with almost 30,000 new doctors of philosophy. There were only about 37,000 full-time professors teaching in Canada in 2019.
The traditional career paths for a Ph.D are quite established. They include finding academic employment as a university professor. Other paths include work as professional researchers (typically in STEM fields) or consultants in various capacities.
If a Canadian doctoral candidate aims to graduate and join the academic profession as a professor, she or he faces stiff competition in Canada’s current job market. Professional researchers in STEM fields do have further career options; Ph.Ds in humanities, however, face dimmer prospects. They may consult, which is the product either of personal brio or happy circumstance.
Universities, on the other hand, obtain direct and sustained benefits from graduate enrolment. Take Ontario as a representative example: each university receives funding per student known as ‘Basic Income Units’. Each student has a value. To these units are added things like a ‘Graduate Expansion Grant’, which rewards universities for expanding their graduate enrolments year-on-year. Bottom line: universities benefit from additional government support when they convince students to enrol in doctoral programs.
The situation is such that the Government of Ontario has created and expanded funding incentives for post-graduate employment six months and two years after graduation. Put differently, universities are now not only rewarded for increasing their enrolments, thus saturating sectors of the labour market; universities also benefit from graduates’ future job prospects. This benefit again takes further advantage of the training that students receive.
Come back to the question: is doctoral candidates’ labour of sufficient value to the graduate student? This question pairs with the Latin qui bono. The funds delivered to universities for their students’ labour generally benefit the university more than the student. In undergraduate or masters’ education, one might distinguish the benefit: these degrees are threshold requirements to a broad range of jobs. Students in these degrees do benefit from the education that they are offered.
Doctoral candidates, however, face restricted job prospects due to the specialized nature of their education. They are required to perform intensive research, which (unless the candidate works on the degree part-time) requires the candidate to fully commit herself or himself to the degree. This requirement causes the candidate to lose income from other employment: a disadvantage imposed by the university. The university, however, obtains operating grants for the candidates’ labour and for increasing the number of candidates labouring at the university.
On this cynical view, universities systematically benefit to an overwhelming degree. The circumstances of liberal higher education have changed the educational value of a doctorate. While doctoral candidates obtain value from the education offered, they also face the prospect of lost income. Their labour in fact serves to remunerate the university to such a degree that the university’s requirements become tantamount to an employer-employee relationship. Doctoral candidates may (with a lot more evidence) be in a position to unionize and, thus, to obtain more reasonable working conditions.