Student leaders cry out for support in federal budget, wary of long-term pandemic consequences

For Osob Mohamed, finishing her final semester at Simon Fraser University is bittersweet. Despite feeling the accomplishment of completing her health sciences degree, she’s apprehensive what’s next for her during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It is feeling a little more bleak, I think, than anything,” said the Surrey, B.C., resident.

“It definitely isn’t what I imagined it would be … particularly now looking at the job market and thinking about what my next steps and my prospects are.”

The coronavirus pandemic has dealt multiple blows to Canadian post-secondary students, altering their schooling and drastically affecting their job options. Student leaders and policy experts are calling for them to get more help in next week’s federal budget, wary of long-term consequences if they are not supported.

The bleakness Mohamed described is also what she hears from her peers in her role as president of Simon Fraser’s Student Society. They’ve shared difficulties they’re facing, including navigating the dramatic shifts to online learning, paying high tuition fees that have remained steady or risen during the pandemic, worrying about having the funds to continue learning and taking on precarious part-time work in sectors deemed essential.

WATCH | Students report precarious finances amid pandemic, says student leader:

Simon Fraser Student Society’s president shares financial concerns affecting her peers amid COVID-19, including feeling unsure about their ability to continue their education. 1:28

“We’ve been doing our best to make sure that our services stay open.… We’ve put in a lot of funding that we’ve had into emergency aid,” Mohamed said of her group. “But at the end of the day, we just don’t have the resources to help students the same way that the university does and the same way that the provincial and federal governments would be able to if they were to make those a priority.”

On the other side of the country, Bailey Howard is hearing about many of the same challenges, and more.

“I do think that post-secondary students have definitely been put on the back burner,” said the Newfoundland and Labrador chair for the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS). 

She cited students’ struggles accessing broadband, a lack of mental health and other support services and a significant drop in job prospects.

Youth employment has indeed fluctuated greatly this past year. Seasonally adjusted, the jobless rate for Canadians aged 15-24 before the pandemic was 10.4 per cent in January and February 2020, according to Statistics Canada. That figure spiked to 29.1 per cent by May 2020. 

Though the youth jobless rate gradually fell last summer and autumn, it rose again to 19.9 per cent this January with a fresh wave of lockdowns and closures, StatsCan noted in its March 2021 Labour Force Survey

The agency underlined the extent to which the employment of young Canadians aged 15-24, particularly young women, is affected by public health measures enacted to contain COVID-19. It also said the recent tightening of restrictions in provinces such as B.C., Quebec and Ontario could impact April’s results.

Youth unemployment rates have always been higher than the national average, but young Canadians are suffering the brunt of job cuts this year, according to Tim Lang, president and CEO of Youth Employment Services in Toronto.

“Youth are disproportionately affected during COVID-19,” he said. “When organizations have to cut back, they often look at their newer employees or younger employees.”

Looking to the budget

Against this backdrop of uncertain job prospects, student leaders are calling for an extension of the moratorium on repaying student loans in the upcoming federal budget.

The measure would allow students to focus on finding work and focusing on getting through the pandemic right now before having to start paying back their student loans, said Howard of the CFS, who is completing a post diploma in journalism at the the College of the North Atlantic.

WATCH | What post-secondary students want to see in the federal budget:

The coronavirus has posed many new challenges for post-secondary students, who are feeling the squeeze in different ways from province to province. 0:52

Grappling with student debt and poor employment options is an ongoing crisis, says David Macdonald, an Ottawa-based senior economist for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

It’s key for young Canadians to get back into the workforce as soon as possible. The impact of not having a job for a year or two after college or university graduation can extend beyond just lost income over that period, he said.

“Once the job market recovers, now they are competing against a new crop of students who have just graduated and don’t have a gap in their resumés, so they’ve got a lot more competition for jobs,” he said. “[It] affects their long-term prospects and long-term earning potential.”

He worries some new graduates may feel forced into taking any work simply to pay off their school debt.

“It puts a lot of pressure on folks,” he said.

WATCH | Measures that could aid post-secondary students, schools:

David Macdonald, a senior economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, says the federal government should take a moment to consider how it can use the pandemic as a chance to help universities in the long term. 0:45

In the budget, Macdonald wants to see an improved version of last year’s Canada emergency student benefit, which fell short and “wasn’t very well subscribed to,” he said, because it offered substantially less than the more general Canada emergency response benefit. 

Ideally, he also wants to see a longer-term federal investment in post-secondary so schools don’t raise their tuition fees.

The federal government remains “committed to supporting students and ensuring youth get the experience and skills they need to succeed,” said Marielle Hossack, press secretary for Carla Qualtrough, Canada’s minister of employment, workforce development and disability inclusion.

She noted actions the federal government has already taken, such as a doubling of Canada Student Grants.

“While I cannot comment on what may or may not be under consideration for the upcoming federal budget, our government will always be there for students and will continue to do what it takes to help them get through this extremely challenging economic period,” Hossack said.

Though Simon Fraser student Mohamed once pondered pursuing graduate studies, she’s now planning to take time to rest and recoup before plunging into a job search. Her dream of being financially stable enough to live on her own in B.C.’s Lower Mainland is on hold for now.

“I think about what are the differences between the long-term dreams that we have and that previous generations have had,” she said. 

“Sometimes a ceiling almost feels like it’s closing in on us in some ways and that we’re not able to dream as big as we want to.”

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