This story is part of Learning Curve, a HuffPost Canada series that explores the challenges and opportunities for students, faculty and post-secondary institutions amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Before he entered law school, Thomas Naciuk did what many post-secondary students do: made a financial plan. His plan relied on government grants, taking a line of credit and working every summer of his degree.
Now entering his final year at the University of Ottawa amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Naciuk has had to make adjustments. The summer job he found at his university, helping professors build online courses, pays about $400 every two weeks, and although he is receiving the $1,250/month Canada Emergency Student Benefit (CESB), it’s not enough to cover his rent. He’s now moving back in with his parents — a “bummer,” he told HuffPost Canada.
He said the government’s financial support for students has been inadequate.
“What do you tell students whose rent is $1,250 and they have no job? It’s not supporting students,” Naciuk, who has worked with the Don’t Forget the Students group to advocate for student financial aid during the pandemic, said.
“It’s a shell game, trying to make it seem like [the government is] providing a full, complete support package, but it’s really just some window dressing that has not materialized.”
Widespread concern among students
Naciuk is far from alone in his financial concerns.
The employment rate for students aged 20 to 24 was 29.8 per cent in April — down from 52.5 per cent in February, according to data from Statistics Canada.
Before the federal government announced the CESB, which is available from May to August, 73 per cent of participants in the StatCan survey said they were very or extremely concerned about using up their savings. That number declined to 61 per cent after the announcement, still a “notable number” reporting significant concerns, the report states.
A survey of 1,400 people conducted by Campaign Research for the Toronto Star found just 13 per cent of those surveyed believed tuition should remain the same for online courses.
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The desire for lower tuition comes after a summer of patchwork financial assistance programs and lost employment opportunities for students. It also poses a challenge to colleges and universities: lower tuition so that students can attend, or keep tuition costs the same and risk losing students altogether.
The federal government has invested $9 billion into student financial assistance during the pandemic. But students say it’s not enough, and that it’s leaving some student populations out entirely.
A spokesperson for Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) said in a statement that the government has helped students affected by the pandemic by introducing a six-month moratorium on repaying federal student loans, introducing the CESB, doubling Canada Student Grants and broadening the eligibility for student financial assistance. It also invested in expanding youth employment and work placement programs.
As of July 30, the federal government had approved over 1.5 million CESB applications, with about 250,000 of those an enhanced $2,000 benefit given to students who have a disability or who have a young child or other dependents. (The 1.5-million figure represents the total applications over multiple eligibility periods. The government has received some 673,400 total unique, or individual, applicants.)
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The number of applicants has declined slightly over the three application periods, with almost 100,000 fewer applicants in July than May. David Macdonald, a senior economist at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, said this can be attributed to “some rebound” in the job market in the summer.
But he noted jobs available over the summer, such as in food and hospitality, may not be available in the fall when restaurant patios are closed.
“The job market will remain quite poor, I suspect, for youth,” Macdonald said, adding that students could save money by moving back in with their parents.
In total, the feds have paid out over $2.1 billion in CESB payments. As emergency federal financial supports begin to wind down, the responsibility for supporting students may fall to the provinces, Macdonald said.
“I think that now we will see a real provincial phase of student support, which will vary dramatically, likely depending on which province you’re in,” he said.
Each province transfers a different amount of base funding to colleges and universities and has a differing level of involvement in the post-secondary sector. Provinces that transfer more to institutions may have lower tuition, since schools don’t need to make up the difference in funding, whereas the opposite is likely to be true in provinces where schools receive less government funding.
Generally, government transfers to post-secondary institutions have declined in recent decades, so Macdonald said individual debt will likely be the “answer of governments toward the coronavirus crisis.”
CFS leader wants to see universal financial benefit
The Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) is a national organization that has been advocating to “fight the fees” and pushing for government-subsidized tuition for decades.
That fight is especially critical right now amid the pandemic, said Sofia Descalzi, CFS’ chairperson.
“We’re seeing that these piecemeal programs that the government has been announcing since the beginning of the crisis are really not helping students,” Descalzi told HuffPost.
She said she wants to see a universal benefit for students of $2,000 — the amount the Canada Emergency Response Benefit pays out in each instalment — that extends to international and mature students.
The federal government has said it will double the total amount given in the Canada Student Grant, up to $6,000 for full-time students. It will also double the amount it gives in grants for students with disabilities and students who have dependents.
But $6,000 isn’t quite enough for tuition for a domestic student, let alone to cover living expenses or textbooks, Descalzi said.
“We know that a well-educated population is really the solution that is going to get us out of the crisis that we currently live in,” she added.
The ESDC spokesperson touted the additional funding available through the grant, but did not say whether the government would increase other aid programs or add new investments for students.
The CFS and other student groups have asked for the $900 million that the federal government invested in the Canada Student Service Grant (CSSG) to go toward the CESB. The government has come under fire for its role in awarding the administration of the program to WE Charity, a deal that has now been scrapped. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the program is now “unlikely to be a part of [the $9-billion federal aid] package this summer.”
Sixty-four per cent of applicants to the program, which would pay students between $1,000 to $5,000 to volunteer, were a visible minority and 10 per cent were LGBTQ+, according to a statement from WE Charity.
“It just shows that marginalized communities are affected more strongly during this crisis and they need that income support now,” Descalzi said of the applicant statistics.
“The fact that [income support] hasn’t been delivered is quite unacceptable and further goes to show that we just needed a universal benefit in the first place.”