PhD students in ‘financial jeopardy’ after funding award ‘error’

Several students at the University of Toronto have been ordered to repay money received during an award ceremony

November 20, 2018
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PhD students at a leading Canadian university have claimed that they are in “financial jeopardy” after having been ordered to pay back funding that they were awarded as the result of “clerical error”.

At least 10 PhD students at the University of Toronto’s chemical engineering department were presented with endowed awards ranging from C$1,000 (£590) to C$15,000 during a dinner in March, which was attended by the award donors.

However, after distributing the money, the department emailed several students whose awards were greater than C$3,000, ordering them to return some of the cash. Graduating students were told to repay a portion of the money, while continuing students were told that their stipend for the next academic year would be adjusted accordingly.

An email sent to one student, seen by Times Higher Education, claims that they were “incorrectly distributed the full amount” for the award and says that they must “ensure you pay the fees promptly to avoid any interest charges”.

It adds that “in awards over $3,000 in value, the student stipend is increased by sum of $3,000 and the department and supervisor contributions are decreased by 50 per cent of the differential (ie, scholarship amount −$3,000)”.

Another email sent by an administrator in the department to a student apologised that the policy “wasn’t explicitly stated on the Departmental Awards page”, adding that the website has since been updated “to make this 100 per cent clear to award applicants”.

Some of the students involved complained to THE that the policy had not been made clear in advance and said that they had already used the funding to repay loans.

One student, who said that they had been forced to return more than C$5,000 in order to enrol in the next academic year and to apply for a government student loan, said that the situation has put all the award recipients “in financial jeopardy”.

The student, who wished to remain anonymous, added that the email also “brought tremendous inconvenience to the graduating students since they would not be allowed to attend convocation unless all the outstanding fees were cancelled”.

Another student said that the endowed awards were restricted for student support, but the policy meant that in some cases 80 per cent of the money was, in effect, being used for departmental operating funds instead.

They alleged that some graduating students had been threatened with degree suspension if they did not repay the funds, while some current students’ stipends had been suspended.

Catherine Riddell, executive director of communications at Toronto, said that “a clerical error was made and some graduate students in the department of chemical engineering received incorrect award amounts”.

“The department took steps to correct this error when it was discovered. In doing so, some confusion was created about graduate funding. Graduate funding is a package that can include contributions from many sources, including the department (in the form of fellowships), stipends from research accounts, external and internal awards, and teaching assistantships.

“Three students were asked to repay a portion of the funds because they were graduating. All three of those cases have been resolved. The department has taken steps to ensure this error does not happen again.”

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