The Facts

With a global pandemic and unprecedented economic turmoil, it is more important than ever that the Canadian government support post-secondary students and recent graduates. At a uniquely difficult point in their lives, students have been blindsided by lost income, unexpected pivots to online classes, isolation, and bleak job prospects following graduation. While the Canadian post-secondary system is strong, students in Canada remain worried about their studies and financial stability moving forward. Many students are also facing concerns exacerbated by the pandemic, such as insufficient broadband access and inadequate child care options. These gaps in support place immense stress on Canadian students and recent graduates, and our goal is to #CloseTheGaps so students can thrive and succeed in the future!

Below is an overview of many of the issues facing students today, along with what CASA is asking federal decision-makers to do to #CloseTheGaps:

Mental Health Funding

Mental health has long been a pressing concern for post-secondary students in Canada. The 2016 National College Health Association survey of Canadian post-secondary students shows that a significant and growing number of students are experiencing mental health problems and illnesses: 44.4% of surveyed students reported that at some point in the previous twelve months they felt “so depressed it was difficult to function”; 13% had seriously considered suicide; 2.1% had attempted suicide, and 18.4% reported being “diagnosed or treated by a professional” for anxiety. These alarming statistics are underscored by research that indicates “up to 75 percent of mental health problems have an age of onset occurring in childhood, adolescence or young adulthood.” These facts tell us that mental health support is incredibly important for young people grappling with the stress of the transition to post-secondary education and entry into the full-time workforce.

Unfortunately, student mental health has been made considerably worse by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Students and recent graduates have been experiencing unprecedented levels of social isolation, poor job prospects, and increased financial strain at a uniquely difficult point in their lives. According to a recent CASA survey, 7-in-10 students reported feeling stressed, anxious, or isolated due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with 75% reporting that the crisis will have a negative impact on their finances and employment situation beyond 2020. Statistics Canada also notes that the percentage of Canadians aged 15-34 who report their mental health as “excellent” or “very good” has decreased more than almost 20% since the onset of the pandemic. More needs to be done to #CloseTheGaps in mental health support for Canadian students as they struggle with the implications of post-secondary education and COVID-19.

Recognizing these troubling trends, and the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, CASA recommends that the Government of Canada do the following to #CloseTheGaps in post-secondary mental health support:

  • Provide a new funding envelope to provinces for targeted on-campus mental health investments in an effort to deepen federal support for post-secondary student mental health.
  • Commit additional long-term funding to the Wellness Together portal in an effort to expand its reach and build-up its scope of services to make virtual mental health services more accessible across the country.

Student Financial Aid

The COVID-19 pandemic has left many post-secondary students financially strained and unsettled. At a time when students are collecting roughly $17,000 on average in student loan debt, many have also been blindsided by sudden pandemic-induced unemployment as well as long-term uncertainty in the labour market. Immediate relief from the Government of Canada, in the form of the Canada Emergency Student Benefit (CESB) and doubling of the Canada Student Grant (CSG), supplied much-needed short-term relief to students, providing the extra funds they needed to afford rent and groceries while still paying tuition. These funds were greatly appreciated, and Statistics Canada data shows that it significantly reduced the amount of financial anxiety amongst students during the summer of 2020. While many had lost their summer work opportunities, the CESB and CSG expansion provided indispensable relief to students across the country.

While this immediate emergency relief has been extraordinarily necessary, the pandemic, and its associated economic turmoil, persists. According to Statistics Canada, high youth unemployment may linger for years, and the Class of 2020 could lose between $23,000 to $44,000 in cumulative earnings over the next five years, making it more difficult for many to pay their student debts. Recognizing the immense relief this immediate aid has had, and acknowledging that Canada may not fully recover from the COVID-19 pandemic for years to come, it is important that the federal government continue to invest in pandemic-informed financial supports, as well as additional upfront, non-repayable grants, for low- and medium-income students.

Pandemic or not, making post-secondary education more affordable and accessible for low- and medium-income students has always been a good idea. Upfront, non-repayable aid in the form of grants is a proven way to make education more affordable for those who want to attend post-secondary but may not have the means to do so. Continuing to make programs like the Canada Student Grant, granting agency student scholarships, and the Apprenticeship Incentive Grant more generous will help more marginalized students, and those looking to re-skill, access and afford a Canadian post-secondary education.

Therefore, CASA recommends that the Government of Canada do the following to #CloseTheGaps surrounding student pandemic aid, as well as educational affordability and accessibility:

  • Maintain the 2020-2021 funding levels to Canada Student Grants under the Canada Student Loans Program in response to COVID-19, thus doubling grant maximums for eligible students from $3,000 to $6,000 per academic year going forward.
  • Extend the Home Office Expense Deduction to Canadian post-secondary students forced to attend school from home due to COVID-19.
  • Increase funding for the SSHRC, NSERC and CIHR student scholarship programs on a recurring basis so that they return to the proportion of agency spending they represented in 2011.
  • Reduce financial barriers to apprenticeships by expanding the Apprenticeship Incentive Grant to provide upfront support covering the first year of apprenticeship training.

Jobs for Students

With over 630,000 jobs lost between March and December 2020, it’s clear that COVID-19 has taken a serious and lasting toll on the Canadian economy. Young people in Canada (aged 15-24) have been hit hard by this economic shutdown, seeing a massive 27.2% unemployment rate in April 2020 versus a general rate of 13.0%. Jobs for young Canadians have also been slower to return, as the unemployment rate for those 15-24 persists at 17.7% when compared to the rate decreasing to 8.6%. This is partly because many young Canadians, including students, tend to disproportionately work in the retail and service sectors, which have both been decimated by the COVID-19 pandemic, but also because young Canadians tend to have the least seniority at their place of work, and therefore are the first to be relieved during a recession.

This unemployment gap between the student-aged and the general population requires sustained attention and investment from the federal government. Stimulating the creation of good jobs for post-secondary students is a crucial investment in the workforce of tomorrow, especially given the damage COVID-19-related lockdowns have done. Initiatives such as the Canada Summer Jobs Program, and the Youth Employment and Skills Strategy, were vital before the pandemic, and must be scaled up to meet the enhanced needs of our current reality. In addition, an additional investment must be provided to programs like the Student Work Placement Program, to provide graduating students with the work experience they need before they start their career. Finally, given the scope of the economic hardship in Canada, it is also important to provide student work opportunities to as many students as possible, including international students and those over the age of 30, to ensure a broad-based labour market recovery following the end of the pandemic.

As such, CASA recommends that the Government of Canada do the following to #CloseTheGaps in the Canadian labour market:

  • Build on existing investments in the Canada Summer Jobs program, Student Work Placement Program, and the Youth Employment and Skills Strategy, to create more opportunities for post-secondary students.
  • Create a program modeled off Canada Summer Jobs to provide students with part-time work opportunities during the school year that offer experiences relevant to areas of study.
  • Amend the eligibility criteria for Canada Summer Jobs to make the program available to international students studying in Canada and as well as mature students over the age of 30.

Access to Technology

Access to reliable, affordable, and high-speed Internet has become an integral part of the post-secondary student experience in Canada. Not only is the Internet a hub for social communication and financial management, it is also a necessity for students who use it to register for courses, check syllabi, submit assignments, and access library resources. It has undoubtedly improved the accessibility of the student experience by making online courses and resources more accessible, but its necessity has also imposed additional costs, and created new gaps, for students already facing systemic barriers. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these gaps by forcing hundreds of thousands of post-secondary students to study from their bedrooms, no matter where they live and with no regard to their level of access to at-home technological resources.

Prior to the pandemic, many students without technological resources relied on-campus amenities such as free high-speed wireless Internet and access to sufficient computer workstations. This is an unfortunate circumstance in and of itself, but it was made worse by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the mandated at-home learning that it required. Since March 2020, many low-income post-secondary students have been placed in impossible circumstances, dealing with insufficient Internet bandwidth and juggling one household computer amongst multiple users. This is an unsustainable reality, and more must be done to close the technology affordability gap for low-income post-secondary students looking to adequately supply themselves, especially in a time of pandemic-imposed at-home learning.

Beyond affordability, many students learning from home with an adequate workstation are still unable to properly participate in class due to their poor Internet connectivity. This access gap is particularly acute for many rural students who are unable to access the high-speed broadband available in Canadian cities. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission estimates that only 68% of rural residents in Canada have access to broadband Internet fast enough to sustainably access the kind of videoconferencing applications used for online learning. This is compared to 100% of urban residents. Recognizing this gap impacting rural students, the federal government has promised to accelerate its investment and connect 98% of Canadians by 2026. This is a much-welcomed target, but it must be achieved, and more must be done in the meantime to support those with limited access and resources.

Because of that, CASA recommends that the Government of Canada do the following to #CloseTheGaps in technological and broadband access for post-secondary students:

  • Accelerate investment, with immediate steps, into improving rural high-speed Internet access across Canada.
  • Commit additional funding to provide appropriate digital technology to any low-income post-secondary student who needs it.

Supports for International Students

It’s no secret that international students have been left behind during the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite their much higher tuition fees, as well as their $21.6 billion contribution to the Canadian economy, international students were excluded from various COVID-19 relief programs such as the Canada Emergency Student Benefit (CESB) and the expansion of the Canada Summer Jobs Program. This support was overlooked while international students struggled with lost income, stringent travel restrictions, and confusing work permit regulation changes. Many international students have been obliged to continue attending online classes in the middle of the night on unstable Internet in order to maintain their path to Canadian permanent residency, while others have returned to Canada and have been forced into substandard housing while completing their legally-required 14-day quarantine. International students require support to cope with their current and unprecedented reality.

It is also clear that international students are assets to Canada, bringing considerable cultural and economic value to the country while in school, as well as when many decide to stay permanently. International students are highly skilled and educated individuals that enrich dialogues on campus and in the workplace, offer essential cross-cultural perspectives, and encourage a wider awareness of pressing national and international issues. The federal government understands these benefits, and has promised “to become the world’s top destination for talent,” in its most-recent Speech from the Throne. Accordingly, it’s important that the federal government continue to make skilled immigrants, including international students, more attracted to Canada as a study and work destination. While roughly 60% of international students already plan to continue to live and contribute to the Canadian economy after graduation, more must be done to incentivize more international students to choose Canada. Things like reducing permit barriers for international students looking to participate in work-integrated learning experiences, and allowing youth employment program access to international students looking for work, would go a long way to increasing the attractiveness of Canada as a study destination. Moreover, it would also make the lives of existing international students much easier in a time where they need as much support as possible.

Therefore, CASA recommends that the Government of Canada do the following to #CloseTheGaps in international student support and Canada’s attractiveness as a study destination:

  • Amend the eligibility criteria for Canada Summer Jobs and the Youth Employment and Skills Strategy to make the program available to international students.
  • Allow international students to participate in an internship or co-op under their existing study permit rather than requiring them to apply for and obtain a separate co-op or intern work permit.
  • Introduce a series of federal grants, bursaries, and scholarships of merit and need for international students and refugees.

Child care for Students

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented new and serious challenges for many, if not all, post-secondary students in Canada. No cohort of students have found the transition to lockdown and online learning more difficult than students with dependent children. In recent months, the challenges faced by these students have become evident to the entire Canadian post-secondary community. Many students have witnessed their colleagues being interrupted during their online classes or exams by their children, or have seen their colleagues miss out on in-person experiential workshops because of additional child care commitments brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Indeed, COVID-19 has only extended the gaps that students with dependent children face while attending post-secondary education.

The need for proper child care has always been profound for students with dependent children, as they are often required to attend school and find care outside of the typical nine-to-five work schedule. What is more, students from underrepresented demographics are often more likely to have dependent children, therefore making their entry into post-secondary all the more challenging. In fact, one-third of First Nations and one-third of international students are parents, and improving their access to child care would directly ease the load for people who already face systemic barriers.

Unfortunately, there is currently a lack of useful data in Canada available to evaluate the unique needs of students with dependent children. As a result, more study is needed to determine how many child care spaces are required, and where they are needed, to best serve the post-secondary community in Canada.

Therefore, CASA recommends that the Government of Canada do the following to #CloseTheGaps to child care for students with dependent children:

  • Include the needs and concerns of post-secondary students in the development of a Canada-wide early learning and child care program.
  • Investigate the needs for child care amongst students with dependent children through the biennial Longitudinal and International Study of Adults (LISA).

Discrimination in the Post-Secondary Environment

The prevalence of discrimination and gender-based violence across Canadian post-secondary campuses is striking. While gender-based violence can impact anyone, young women and transgender peoples are particularly vulnerable, with 1-in-5 women experiencing a sexual assault during their studies, and nearly half of transgender individuals experiencing sexual assault over their lifetime. Further, young Indigenous women are disproportionately likely to experience gender-based violence, making post-secondary campuses particularly unsafe for a population already facing intergenerational trauma. It’s time for real action to end gender-based violence on Canadian post-secondary campuses.

In addition to gender-based violence, systemic barriers based on discrimination are continuing to keep many equity-seeking groups in Canada from accessing post-secondary education. Indigenous students particularly continue to face barriers to accessing post-secondary education. According to the Assembly of First Nations, 7-in-10 First Nations youth want to participate in post-secondary education, but a survey conducted on the educational attainment of Indigenous Peoples in Canada indicated that only 48.4% of Indigenous peoples had a post-secondary credential, compared with 64.7% of non-Indigenous Peoples. With BIPOC and LGBTQ post-secondary students across the country standing up on their campuses to call out this systemic discrimination, it’s clear that much more needs to be done to make the post-secondary environment a safe and empowering place for all.

As such, CASA recommends that the Government of Canada do the following to #CloseTheGaps around post-secondary discrimination:

  • Create a national standard to address gender-based violence at post-secondary institutions, outlining the minimum services needed on campus to prevent sexual violence and support those students who have been impacted by it.
  • Ensure legislation currently before Parliament enshrining the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples into Canadian law is passed before the end of the current Parliamentary session.