The 2021 federal and provincial budgets promised new investments in and support for post-secondary students in economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, some grad students feel they’ve been overlooked.
Highlights in the new federal budget include the creation of jobs in skilled trades and high-tech industries and the extension of the waiver of interest on federal student loans through March 2023. The BC budget plans to support students through job and co-op placements, work-integrated learning placements and skills training for Indigenous peoples.
More accessible student loans
A highlight of the federal budget is the waiver of interest accrual on students loans until March 31, 2023 — an estimated investment of $393 million. In addition, the federal government plans to double the Canada Student Grants until the end of July 2023.
In a press release, former AMS VP External Kalith Nanayakkara wrote that these changes are “steps in the right direction.”
“It is essential that the federal government support post-secondary students during Canada’s recovery from the pandemic,” wrote Nanayakkara. “Students will play a critical role in supporting Canada’s economic recovery.”
Nanayakkara said the waiver of interest fees is something the AMS and Undergraduates of Canadian Research-Intensive Universities (UCRU) have been advocating for throughout the last year, in addition to continued investments into student and youth employment.
‘It’s a big one for students,” said Nanayakkara.
The federal budget also plans to increase the repayment assistance threshold for student loan borrowers from $25,000 per year to $40,000 — as well as reduce the cap on monthly student loan payments from 20 per cent of gross income to 10 per cent.
Investments in student employment
Both the federal and provincial budgets have new investments in jobs and skills training for young people.
Liberal MP Joyce Murray said the $1.7 billion investment in new jobs and opportunities for skill development should be of interest to students. The federal government has also invested in the Student Work Placement Program, a $240-million investment to support work-integrated learning opportunities for post-secondary students.
The budget states that young Canadians — specifically racialized Canadians and immigrants — have suffered from unemployment due to COVID-19 more than any other age group, something that could lead to “long-term consequences by disrupting important experiences in the crucial early years of their working lives.”
For Indigenous students in particular, the budget commits to providing $150 million over two years for Indigenous students through the Post-Secondary Student Support Program and the Inuit and Métis Nation Post-Secondary Education Strategies.
The report also proposes a $26 million investment in 2021/22 to support Indigenous post-secondary institutions during the pandemic.
Minister of Diversity and Inclusion and Youth Bardish Chagger said that youth economic recovery is at the forefront of the federal budget.
“Young Canadians must be at the centre of Canada’s recovery plan not only to help them rebound today, but to invest in their future success and the future success of our economy and country,” said Chagger.
In BC, the provincial budget also includes a $6 million investment in 2021/22 to support work-integrated learning placements for 3,000 students and $4 million to continue short-term skills training programs for unemployed and underemployed individuals in sectors “such as construction, technology, health care and child care to ensure graduating students are well positioned to secure employment”.
$17 million in the provincial budget will focus on skills training for Indigenous people, where funding will be distributed to 266 Indigenous communities and organizations.
“These [provincial investments] in combination with investments made in the federal budget will provide students with the support that they need,” said AMS VP External Saad Shoaib.
Age limits pose issues for grad students
However, for some graduate students, the new changes presented by the federal and provincial budget were expected and not “exceptionally exciting” as some investments left them falling through the cracks.
Former Graduate Student Society (GSS) VP External Alireza Kamyabi said many programs for students have age limits and do not apply to many graduate students and adult learners — such as the federal summer jobs program, which is eligible for students up to 30 years old, or the significant provincial investments in skills training available for apprenticeships, but not for graduate students.
For Kamyabi, the 2021 budgets leave out a “significant portion of our post-secondary students.”
“Having these age limits for a lot of the program announcements makes it so that it's actually quite inaccessible for our graduate students,” he said. “I hope to see the province move away from age limit restrictions on policy support programs and recognize that we have a lot of adult learners in our universities and colleges.
“...I certainly hope that moving forward, the government doesn't earmark support programs just purely based on age.”
In the 2021 consultation report, the GSS put forward three recommendations: an expansion of the BC graduate scholarship, greater provincial investments in research and an expansion of BC access grants to include graduate students and provide them needs-based grants. According to Kamyabi, the latter two recommendations were not fully included in the 2021 provincial budget.
Kamyabi said that the provincial budget missed the opportunity to strengthen BC’s research innovation sector with little investment in basic research programs, and the the federal budget also “fell way short of what was expected given that Canada’s COVID-19 research has lagged behind.”
As Kamyabi says the Canada Student Grants program also does not apply to graduate students, he admits that graduate students are “not particularly excited” to see the new federal budget announcements as the GSS had hoped for the program to expand to graduate students while they currently have no needs-based grants.
In response to graduate students’ concerns, Chagger says it’s important to connect with one’s local MP to seek advice on certain programs they might be eligible for.
“I do believe with the range of opportunities that we put forward, it actually does encompass a lot of the needs that we heard, including for graduate students … Our government recognizes that there is a diversity of needs, perspectives and experiences within the population and we've been really conscious about working with all segments of it.”
Steps in the right direction
Murray said she views the federal budget as something that truly acknowledges the importance of students, but also has elements in areas beyond students’ direct interests.
Murray also pointed to new investments in affordable housing, support for childcare and forward movement on climate change and environmental conservation.
“[We must] make sure that as we emerge from the pandemic and we restart and rebuild the economy, we’re actually doing it in a way that is fairer, more resilient, more innovative and more green,” she said.
Shoaib said many of the changes in the federal budget reflect priorities that the AMS and UCRU have been lobbying for.
“We’re going to continue to work with UCRU to ensure that students are continuously put first during the federal government’s recovery plan from the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said.
Nanayakkara said these investments show the governments are listening.
“They understand the need for students to be integrated back into the economy as we work towards this recovery.”