New Brunswick’s right-wing Conservative government scraps student financial aid program without warning

Are you a student in New Brunswick or elsewhere in Canada? Contact the International Youth and Students for Social Equality (IYSSE) at [email protected] to join the fight against attacks on student financial support and the gutting of funding for post-secondary education.

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To the dismay of university students across New Brunswick, the right-wing Conservative government led by Premier Blain Higgs has decided to abolish a program allowing them to receive employment insurance while studying at the end of June without even a public announcement.

University of Moncton [Photo by Hussein Abdallahh / CC BY 4.0]

The Higgs government, which imposed wage and benefit concessions on more than 22,000 public sector workers last November after a bitter two-week strike, has now turned against students by scrapping the EI Connect scheme. . Under this program, students who worked enough hours during the summer could receive employment insurance during the school year. According to the Student Federation of the Université de Moncton (FÉÉCUM), approximately 7,000 students benefited from the program, not counting those who planned to use it in the fall.

Launched in 2008, the program, then called the Training and Development Program, aimed to encourage post-secondary education. At the time, average student debt in New Brunswick was the highest of any Canadian province. Originally designed for a two-year period, the program was largely limited to community college students. In 2016, the provincial government, after discussions with Ottawa, changed the eligible aid period to four years, allowing university students to become eligible for the program now known as EI Connection.

Underscoring the Higgs government’s contempt for workers and the student community in general, students learned that the program had been removed from their classmates or student unions on social media. The Department of Post-Secondary Education, Training and Labor made no public announcement, limiting itself to sending an email memo to select university and student union staff.

Students reacted to the news with a mix of anger, anxiety and panic, with the majority wondering how they could continue or even begin their post-secondary education. Sharing these sentiments, Eve Chamberlain, a mechanical engineering student at the Université de Moncton, launched an online petition calling for the reinstatement of the program which garnered nearly 14,000 signatures in less than a day.

The government’s decision to abolish the program has jeopardized the future of thousands of students. Interviewed by CBC Radio-Canada, Jean-Sébastien Léger, president of FÉÉCUM and one of the recipients of the email, underlined the impact that the end of EI Connect would have on access to post-secondary studies: “We We are very concerned about the impact on accessibility and the ability of students, especially those in rural New Brunswick, to know whether they will be able to pursue post-secondary education. According to Léger, the current average student debt in the province is $40,000, a figure that will certainly climb without access to employment insurance.

The cut in student financial aid by Higgs, a former Irving Oil business executive, comes as students across Canada and abroad struggle to cope with low incomes in conditions runaway inflation. Many students lost their jobs during the pandemic as the service and hospitality sectors reduced employment during shutdowns and times of public health restrictions. There are growing reports from various parts of the country of the use of campus food banks by students struggling to make ends meet.

Long before the latest spike in the price of basic necessities, many Canadian students were unable to continue their education due to the financial burden. According to a survey commissioned by the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAPPU) and the Canadian Federation of Students (CTF), conducted among 1,100 respondents during the first wave of the pandemic, 3 out of 4 said they were worried about the future because of the economic consequences of the pandemic and 1 in 2 acknowledged that the pandemic made it more difficult to pay school fees and the cost of living less affordable. According to the survey, 30% of respondents said they had given up enrolling in a post-secondary program for fall 2020 due to financial pressures.

The abolition of EI Connect will be the final nail in the coffin of many young people’s college careers. As Hélène Albert, professor at the School of Social Work at the University of Moncton and internal vice-president of the Association of Librarians and Professors of the University of Moncton (ABPPUM), points out in a press release: unaffordable prices for people who earn a very good living, it has become impossible for students…” According to the ABPPUM, the impact of the end of student financial aid on recruitment and retention on campus could threaten the survival of the Universities of Moncton.

In the face of widespread outrage, the Higgs government attempted to justify its decision by arguing that EI Connect did not meet the eligibility criteria for federal employment insurance and that the decision was made following Ottawa’s demands for “comply with the federal program”.

This excuse is nonsense. While the federal government has lobbied since the program’s inception to force Fredericton to change its terms, it was not obligated to scrap it altogether. As Serge Cormier, Liberal MNA for Acadie-Bathurst, admitted, “If the Government of New Brunswick wants to continue the program, all it has to do is reconsider its decision and say that it wants to continue the program, It’s as simple as that.

The real reason for the program’s abolition was provided by a spokesperson for the Department of Post-Secondary Education, Training and Labour. In an email sent to Radio-Canada, the official said the decision was precipitated by demands from the business community: “Given the current challenges in the province’s labor market, Connect EI-NB is also in conflict with the province’s efforts to help employers. fill vacant positions. In other words, the program was abolished in order to use students already overwhelmed with studies and unpaid internships as cheap labor to meet the demands of big business.

Despite Cormier’s attempt to absolve the federal government of all responsibility for the plight of students, Trudeau’s Liberal government is also responsible for the precariousness and stress faced by post-secondary students across Canada. After handing over hundreds of billions of dollars to banks and big business at the start of the pandemic, the Trudeau government has waged a reckless back-to-work campaign with the backing of unions. COVID-19 has been allowed to spread through workplaces, schools, and university and college campuses to protect the flow of profits to Canada’s corporate elite.

As the highly infectious variant of Omicron spread rapidly last winter, university administrators forced a dangerous return to in-person classes, leading to a wave of infections. They were inspired by the Trudeau government, which did nothing to stop the spread of Omicron and oversaw the dismantling of all remaining public health measures following the promotion of the far-right Freedom Convoy by the conservative opposition.

Many students across Canada have staged protests against the reckless reopening strategy, including at McGill University in Montreal and Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. Student calls for a return to online learning and better protection have been met with complete indifference from provincial governments, regardless of political stripe.

Higgs’ decision to abolish the student employment insurance program is part of the ruling class’ determined drive to cut public spending in all areas in order to finance Canadian imperialism’s support for the war between the United States and NATO against Russia.

The broad support for the petition opposing the abolition of EI Connect underscores that capitalist austerity is deeply unpopular. But calls for politicians to change their ways and provide students with adequate financial support so they can focus on their studies will fall on deaf ears. What is needed is the building of a mass movement of students and young people, in alliance with education workers and other sections of the working class, to lead a political struggle for a well-funded, high-quality public education system starting in pre-primary. at the post-secondary level.