Editorial: Post-secondary students need better financial support during COVID-19

It’s a hard time to be a post-secondary student.

Between adjusting to online classes and exams during a literal pandemic, a significant portion of students are dealing with immediate financial stresses like last-minute moving, food insecurity and job losses. Many are battling worries and anxiety about saving up for the upcoming school year’s tuition and fees.

Some may even be dealing with the personal health effects of COVID-19.

Yet, post-secondary students have been systemically left out of the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), which provides those who lost their income because of COVID-19 $500 per week for 16 weeks, starting April 6.

And many students would continue to be left hanging — even as the federal government expanded CERB to more groups, including seasonal workers and those who are still earning up to $1,000 per month, two weeks later.

“If you are looking for a job but haven’t stopped working because of COVID-19, you are not eligible for the Benefit,” reads the eligibility requirements on CERB’s website.

“For example if you are a student who had a job last year and were planning on working this summer you do not qualify for the benefit.”

Undoubtedly, this requirement fails to consider that many co-op or university programs hire students on contracts that usually end right around this time — meaning students did not lose their jobs due to the pandemic, but a contract expiry. Many students also rely on summer employment to help cover the costs of the school year.

But we wouldn’t be the first one to point out its severe limitations.

UBC’s Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice Undergraduate Association created a petition two weeks ago to push for student inclusion. Similarly, the #Don’tForgetStudents petition has attracted over 40,000 signatures since it was first posted in early April.

More concretely, 83 per cent of respondents in a survey conducted by the Undergraduates of Canadian Research-Intensive Universities — which represents student unions at research-focused universities in Canada, including the AMS — say they did not meet CERB’s initial eligibility requirements.

That’s a hell of a lot of students falling through the cracks.

A diverse population

Saying so, there’s no denying that governments at different levels have been rolling out different student-specific support programs.

In late March, both the BC and federal governments have put in place a six-month interest-free moratorium on Canada Student Loan payments. But, this is also something that was already an option both federally and provincially for the graduating class of 2020.

In early April, the provincial government rolled out a one-time $3.5 million funding package for students as well as an additional $1.5 million for Indigenous students.

Most recently, the federal government implemented a wage subsidy for the Canada Summer Jobs program for workers aged 15 to 30 — an encouraging step, as workers aged 15 to 24 faced the largest employment decline of 15.4 per cent this March according to a Statistics Canada report.

But despite all these programs and announcements, we must also recognize the incredibly diverse challenges facing the estimated 1.4 million post-secondary students in Canada.

There might be an assumption that students can always return home to the support of their parents or guardians. But that’s not the full picture.

They include parents with children, who may now have to complete the task of double homeschooling. They include students who are working to support their parents or extended families. They include international students whose routes home may be blocked due to financial, safety or policy constraints. They include graduate students whose research work and methods of income may now be stalled as universities like UBC curtail most on-campus research activities. They include part-time essential service workers in grocery and food service industries. While there is aid available to all UBC students, including international students, who are in immediate risk through the university, the support does not account for the wide range of students affected.

There is a need to recognize the diversity of post-secondary institutions across Canada.

As many individual universities are offering their own emergency funding and financial aid programs, UBC has also launched its own fundraising campaigns — with the President’s Student Emergency Fund on the Vancouver campus and the A.W. Hunt, QC Student Emergency Assistance Fund in Okanagan — appealing to its donors and alumni networks.

But it shouldn’t be completely up to individual schools to try and ensure their students can come back in the fall. With its expansive alumni network and a large operating budget, UBC might be able to pull in massive support, but there are many smaller schools across the country that do not have those same resources.

Where can these students then turn to, if the federal government is also failing them?

While grassroots networks like the COVID-19 Coming Together group exist to help people who need support during the pandemic, this isn’t a substitute for government assistance. Individual people can only do so much and resources are limited, making it difficult to reach everyone equally.

It has been announced that there will be more aid for post-secondary students to be announced in the near future, which we hope would support all students in Canada. Ultimately, student inclusion in the CERB or some form of immediate financial assistance from the federal government is simply an ask for equity in a time of great uncertainty.

Can we catch a break as we navigate this unprecedented health emergency and the impending arrival of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression?

A rundown of funding available to UBC students can be found here. Statistics Canada has also released a survey on the impacts of COVID-19 on post-secondary students that can be found here.