Coronavirus: Post-secondary students call for federal aid as survey reveals financial struggles

Coronavirus outbreak: Trudeau says CERB expanding to encompass more workers
WATCH: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced on Wednesday that the government would be expanding the Canada Emergency Response Benefit to help more people, including seasonal workers, people who are still earning earning up to $1,000 or less a month amid the COVID-19 outbreak and people on Employment Insurance whose EI benefits recently ran out.

The Canadian government must quickly expand eligibility for its emergency financial relief programs to post-secondary students, a majority of whom are worried about making ends meet during the novel coronavirus pandemic, an alliance of student unions says.

A new survey conducted by Undergraduates of Canadian Research-Intensive Universities (URCU) polled over 3,000 students across the country and found 79 per cent of those surveyed are worried about whether they’ll be able to pay their tuition in the fall. A similar number, 73 per cent, said they are concerned about paying their rent through the summer.

Many of those students are quoted in the survey report as saying the summer jobs they were relying on to stay afloat are now in doubt or outright cancelled, with some saying they’re unable to find anyone hiring. Others say they are no longer able to count on financial help from their parents, who have been laid off from their own jobs due to the pandemic.

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READ MORE: Coronavirus — CERB expanded to some who ran out of EI, part-timers and seasonal workers

“Students are in a uniquely precarious and vulnerable position,” said Cristina Ilnitchi, URCU chair and vice-president of external affairs of the Alma Mater Society at the University of British Columbia.

“I think there’s a perception that students can just turn to their families whenever they need help. But we know from these students’ stories that that’s not the case. Many students are paying their own way through school and rely on a combination of supports … and they’re not being captured by the government’s supports.”

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‘Your mental health matters’: B.C. minister on the launch of new supports for post-secondary students

The survey suggests 83 per cent of post-secondary students do not qualify for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), which provides $2,000 every four weeks to eligible Canadians who have lost all of their income because of the health emergency.

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Canadians are eligible for the program if they have earned a minimum of $5,000 in the past 12 months through employment or parental leave benefits — leaving students who rely on student loans and scholarships out of the running.

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Ottawa says it will expand eligibility to people who earn up to $1,000 a month and seasonal workers who can’t find work because of the pandemic, but Ilnitchi says that will only capture a small portion of the students who need access to the benefit.

READ MORE: Coronavirus — Saskatchewan post-secondary student unions say more emergency funds needed

Ilnitchi says other federal government initiatives — like freezing student loan payments and covering Canada Summer Job program costs for small businesses hiring students while extending job placements until winter — have also helped, but more is needed.

That includes increasing funding and eligibility for the Canada Student Grants program to help with tuition payments.

“Even if we get some money into students’ hands right now, many of them are still going to have an extremely difficult time being able to pay for their expenses come September,” she said. “So expanding those grants is a longer-term solution that we’re also pushing the government on.”

Post-secondary institutions in Alberta urge students to vacate residences over COVID-19 outbreak.
Post-secondary institutions in Alberta urge students to vacate residences over COVID-19 outbreak.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Wednesday that information on help for post-secondary students was coming “very soon.”

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Ilnitchi says she and other members of the UCRU have had meetings with government officials over the past few weeks where they have expressed their concerns.

“They’ve told us things are in the works and they’re coming, and they’re just taking some time to develop,” she said.

READ MORE: Federal COVID-19 benefit omits workers with reduced hours, college students — Okanagan MP

But with students surveyed saying they’re quickly running out of funds on their lines of credit and others scrambling to secure a future after graduation, Ilnitchi says time is running out.

“We recognize that an issue of this magnitude hasn’t been tackled in recent history, and it’s difficult to address,” she said. “What we want to highlight is that students are falling through the cracks.

“Our recommendations are based on the lived experience of students. These are things the government can do to support them right now, so we’re waiting to see what they agree to.”

— With files from Global News’ Erica Alini