Protesting Quebec students face another challenge: rising unemployment

MONTREAL – Students marching in the streets against the rising cost of a university education could face an added challenge paying for their degrees: unemployment.

According to Statistics Canada, the youth jobless rate in Canada is 14.7 per cent for those age 15 to 24 – almost double the national rate of 7.4 per cent.

“We are at the bottom of the chain when it comes to jobs,” said Roxanne Dubois, president of the Canadian Federation of Students.

“We depend on being able to work for four months to be able to pay for a portion of those tuition fees.”

The jobless figures are worrisome because many students need work to help pay for tuition fee increases, said Martine Desjardins, president of the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec.

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Students are also facing competition from older workers who are remaining in the workforce and are being increasingly employed in fields popular with students, such as the retail sector.

“The economic recovery has been almost non-existent for young Canadians,” economist Francis Fong of TD Economics said in a recent study on labour-force trends.

“They (those age 15-24) accounted for more than half of all net job losses during the recession, and employment still stands some 250,000 below its pre-recession peak.”

Although the jobless figures appear grim for students under 25, the statistics show that the employment picture is a bit rosier once students obtain a university degree.

The unemployment rate for university graduates between 25 and 29 in Quebec is six per cent. In the rest of Canada, it’s 6.3 per cent for that cohort.

However, some analysts speculate that the number is low because many students, frustrated with job prospects, have stopped looking for work and have returned to school to pursue a second degree.

Enrolment in undergraduate and graduate programs has increased since the economic downturn in 2008, Fong says in the TD study.

Even with university degrees in their pockets, Fong wrote that “new Canadian graduates will face challenging labour market conditions for several more years.”

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The provincial government wants to raise tuition fees $1,625 over five years, or $325 a year, bringing university tuition in Quebec to $3,793.

Premier Jean Charest says the decision to increase tuition fees was made after “decades” of consultation and that Quebec fees will still be among the lowest in Canada after the increases. Charest has said the move is being made to make Quebec universities more competitive.

Students who struggle financially can receive loans up to a maximum of $3,645 a year. But Dubois contends that what students need is lower tuition, not more loans that will keep them indebted for years after they graduate.

“We expect youth to graduate and get a job and contribute to the Canadian economy,” Dubois said. “But, you can’t do that if you are $30,000 in debt. You are not going to buy a house or a car or do anything that is going to keep the economy rolling.”

Éric Martin, a researcher with the Institut de recherche et d’informations socio-économique, contends the Quebec government is increasing tuition fees because it wants to steer students away from humanities programs, such as philosophy and history, because they aren’t perceived as being valuable in a technology-based economy.

“If you give them too much choice they end up going into the arts, which for government isn’t that useful,” he said, claiming the government wants students to concentrate their studies in the fields of engineering, science and biotechnology.

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“The increase in student debt will have an effect on the choice of students. They will decide what programs to enter based on salary.”

The institute also released a study last week warning of a possible student debt “bubble” on the horizon, noting that as the government encourages students to take out more loans to finance their education, many could eventually find themselves facing default when interest rates inevitably rise.

When hunting for jobs this summer, students will no longer be able to visit the federal government job centres. Ottawa is closing its youth employment centres because young students are looking for summer jobs hunting online. Students can still go to to look for work. The cost-cutting measure will save about $6.5 million.

The president of the Concordia Student Union said many students are worried about finding work over the summer.

“Some end up in precarious jobs working in boiler rooms or telemarketing jobs,” Lex Gill said.