I call this meeting to order.
Welcome to meeting number 18 of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities. Pursuant to the orders of reference of April 11 and May 26, 2020, the committee is resuming its study of the government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Today's meeting is taking place by video conference and the proceedings will be made available via the House of Commons website. The webcast will always show the person speaking rather than the entire committee.
Before speaking, please wait until I recognize you by name. When you are ready to speak, please click on the microphone icon to activate your mike.
Before we get started, I would like to remind everyone, especially the witnesses, to please use the language channel of the language they are speaking. If you are going to switch from English to French or French to English, be sure to change the channel before you change your language. It's a huge help for interpretation.
I thank the witnesses for joining us. With us today we have Emma Rose Bienvenu, appearing as an individual. From the University of Ottawa Students' Union, we have Babacar Faye, president, and Timothy Gulliver, advocacy commissioner.
Ms. Bienvenu, please proceed with your opening remarks.
I'd like to begin by thanking the committee for the invitation. I commend its members for wanting to hear from a wide cross-section of Canadian society, including younger Canadians like me.
My name is Emma Rose Bienvenu. I am a recent graduate of McGill law. I also hold a master's degree in economics and a master's degree in business law from Sciences Po, Paris, and the University of Pennsylvania.
My remarks today are going to focus on three topics. First, I'll say a few words about how I am thinking about this crisis, which will hopefully provide useful context for my later recommendations. Second, I'll discuss ways to retrain and upskill the Canadian workforce. Third, I'll turn to how government can better support students, in particular students with disabilities.
I want to start by discussing two assumptions and beliefs that guide my thinking about the crisis. The first is that, in my view, it's imperative that government make morbidity, not just mortality, a top-of-mind consideration in its policy decisions, particularly as it assesses acceptable risks of virus exposure in the interim economic reopening.
The outcome of coronavirus is often expressed as a binary. We focus on case fatality rates—so many survive and so many don't—and we judge the success or failure of government responses by how many citizens have died from the disease. The science, however, is increasingly clear that COVID-19 does not lead to binary—
Mr. Chair, honourable members, good afternoon. Thank you for allowing us to appear before you.
My name is Babacar Faye and I am the president of the University of Ottawa Students' Union, UOSU. I am accompanied by my colleague, Tim Gulliver, the union's advocacy commissioner. I will present a brief profile of our student community and then talk about the conditions created by this crisis and how it affects students. I'll focus specifically on their financial situation.
I would like to begin by saying that we are very grateful to the government for its efforts to help Canadian students, as well as to Parliament and members of the opposition, who are always looking for solutions to help students overcome the challenges they face during this crisis. These actions have already alleviated many of the challenges faced by the thousands of undergraduate students represented by the UOSU.
The world has stood still during this pandemic, and the student community has been affected as well. We had to make the transition to distance learning, which created additional barriers. This is in addition to the challenges that students share with many Canadians, including loss of jobs and career opportunities, worrying about paying rent and bills, as well as the ability to buy food to put on the table.
When the Canada emergency response benefit, or CERB, was announced, many students at the end of the semester were unemployed and unable to pay their rent for the following month. In fact, a few thousand of them had to leave their homes urgently.
The Canada emergency student benefit has certainly provided some relief. However, the cost of living is not much different for the student community than for the rest of the population, and we realize that even with the Canada emergency student benefit, the situation remains uncertain for many students.
At the same time, we see the spectre of fall tuition fees looming. In order to better understand the effects of this pandemic, between May 5 and May 28, we surveyed our student population on their experiences during the crisis and its academic, financial and psychological impact. The survey determined that this crisis had a serious effect on the ability of students to cover their basic expenses.
In the Ontario context, this follows significant across-the-board cuts to student financial assistance. According to the survey, 44% of our students responded that they are worried or very worried about not being able to pay their rent, and 60% are worried or very worried about their ability to pay their tuition in the fall. It should be noted that 80% think that fall tuition fees should be reduced if all their courses are given online. In fact, 95% of courses are given online at the University of Ottawa.
We are experiencing a crisis that affects all sectors, including education and students. Although students benefit from a number of support measures, tuition fees are still a major concern. The situation is even more difficult for international students, many of whom are still in Canada because of the conditions created by this pandemic. Just yesterday we received an email from an international student who could not go home and cannot work in Canada. The airline cancelled his plane ticket and new tickets would be too expensive for his parents, who have to pay the rent. They have to choose between paying their son's school fees or putting food in his mouth. This student's situation is unfortunately no exception, and many international students find themselves in particularly difficult situations.
The limit on the number of hours that international students could work was lifted, and we applaud the government's action. However, it is still not enough. Many international students are unable to apply for the Canada emergency response benefit, even if they suffer in the aftermath of this pandemic due to the previous limitations.
Without additional government assistance, given the border closures and the various circumstances created by this crisis, international students are likely to be in a fairly precarious situation in the fall. A lot of them already are.
It would be important to consider extending and applying certain measures to assist international students, including the Canada student service grant, a scholarship program for international students or their host institutions, and the Canada emergency response benefit itself.
This reality goes beyond the simple financial framework. Many students, especially international students, face a variety of challenges, which are likely to multiply in the fall when many universities will be offering distance education courses. These challenges raise a number of questions about access to affordable and universally accessible learning materials, which my colleague Mr. Gulliver will address in his presentation.
Thank you for your attention.
I will now yield the floor to my colleague Timothy Gulliver, advocacy commissioner of the University of Ottawa Students' Union.
Thank you, Mr. Chair and members of the committee, for having us today and for hearing the student perspective. It's very much appreciated.
As somebody who's had the opportunity to work on the Hill in the past year, I have a great appreciation for the work all of you do, and the role this chamber and committees play in Canadian democracy.
I want to echo the perspective raised by my colleague and would like also to bring to the attention of members of the committee some of the challenges students have been raising with us.
First, the transition to a fully online learning model has not necessarily been a smooth road. Though we appreciate the hard work our university and others have put in to make this work, it cannot ignore the class, racial and rural/urban disparities within the undergraduate student population, which has had a direct impact on the ability of some to access the tools required to learn online. Examples of these tools include laptops, microphones, webcams, a stable Wi-Fi connection and a quiet place to study and learn at home. Moreover, some programs may require students to purchase additional software or learning tools out of pocket, increasing the financial burden that students already face.
In short, being able to thrive in an online learning setting is a privilege; it is not the reality for all. In our survey, we found that students with disabilities and racialized students were more critical of their online learning experience this spring. This must be addressed. When all students are on campus, many of these challenges are reduced, and there is a more equal opportunity for all students to succeed. However, these unprecedented times and the reality of online learning have shed light on the disparities that exist within our community. We are hopeful the federal government may consider a policy measure like a one-time bursary to help students who could use some extra money to buy the learning tools they need to succeed in an online learning setting.
Second, we remain keenly aware of and concerned by the impact of this pandemic on students' mental health. As many of you may be aware, the University of Ottawa is among many post-secondary institutions facing a mental health crisis. Tragically we have lost six students to suicide on campus since April 2019. We recognize this is a systemic problem that has no easy solution, but our concern is that this pandemic is exacerbating this crisis. In our survey, we found that 63% of students reported that their mental health had worsened or significantly worsened. This is consistent with a survey conducted last month by StatsCan which found, “Almost two-thirds (64%) of those aged 15 to 24 reported a negative impact on their mental health...since physical distancing began.” Students are feeling less productive and less motivated and are struggling due to the lack of social connection. A second wave of COVID-19 would certainly exacerbate these struggles.
Last, I would like to make an appeal, if I may, to all members of this committee. A 2018 report by RBC noted, “Since 1990, the government’s share of university funding has fallen by nearly half and the cost of tuition at universities has risen 2.7 times in real terms”.
I took the liberty of calculating the average age of members of this committee. I found that, on average, members would have been in university 30 years ago, in 1990. I would submit it is more expensive to go to university today than it was 30 years ago. In 1990, according to the RBC, it took around 300 hours of minimum wage work to pay tuition. Today it requires over 500. In 1990, in real terms, the average tuition was around $2,400. Today, it is closer to $6,500. In 1990, average full-time loan borrowing was under $3,000 a year. Today, it is around $6,000 a year. According to the RBC, "Over 20% of graduates with a bachelor’s degree start out with more than $25,000 in debt”, a phenomenon that is exponentially worse for our colleagues in law and medicine.
In our view, it is essential that the federal government work to ensure this trend does not continue, and if not, the challenges already associated with being a post-secondary student in Canada will only worsen due to the current economic climate.
In conclusion, in the short term, our priorities as student leaders are: (a) calling for the inclusion of international students in the government's pandemic response; (b) supporting students who are disadvantaged by online learning; and (c) advocating for a holistic, nationwide mental health response.
In the long term, as we look forward to what a post-COVID Canada will look like, we firmly believe there must be change. We must build a post-COVID society where education is at least as affordable as it was 30 years ago and where every student can afford to help rebuild the Canadian economy, rather than remain saddled by student debt for years to come.
Once again, Mr. Chair, I'd like to thank members of the committee for their time today. We hope this is the beginning of continued consultation with student unions during these trying times.
We're happy to take any questions at the appropriate time. Thank you.
Thank you. I believe we have resolved things.
Once again, I thank the members of the committee for the invitation and I commend them on wanting to hear from a wide cross-section of Canadian society, including younger Canadians like me.
My remarks today are going to focus on three topics. First, I'll say a few words about how I am thinking about this crisis, which will hopefully provide useful context for my later recommendations. Second, I'll discuss ways to retrain and upskill the Canadian workforce. Third, I'll turn to how government can better support students, in particular students with disabilities.
I want to start by discussing two assumptions and beliefs that guide my thinking about the crisis.
The first is that, in my view, it is imperative that government make morbidity, and not just mortality, a top-of-mind consideration in all of its policy decisions, particularly in the interim economic reopening phase as it assesses acceptable risks of virus exposure.
The outcome of coronavirus is often expressed as a binary. We focus on case fatality rates—so many survive and so many do not—and we judge the success or failure of government responses by how many of its citizens die from the disease.
The science, however, is increasingly clear that COVID-19 does not lead to binary outcomes. Many who survive it, particularly the 10% to 15% who experience severe or acute symptoms requiring hospitalization, suffer permanent damage not only to their lungs, but also to their kidneys, liver, heart and even brain. These will require ongoing medical care and have lifelong consequences for their quality of life.
Accordingly, it's my view that even for those who are likely to survive COVID-19, the morbidity risks of exposure should be central to policy decisions and are sufficiently great to justify the most stringent measures to avoid exposure.
My second assumption about this crisis is that many of the changes that are brought about will not be undone, not by a vaccine, not by herd immunity. We do ourselves a disservice by assuming that they might.
The world record for vaccine development is held by the mumps vaccine, which took four years. Concurrent trials for coronavirus vaccine candidates will shorten the timeline, but it is extraordinarily optimistic to assume that we will develop tests and administer a vaccine in anything less than 24 months. Those two years or more will accelerate social and economic changes that would otherwise have taken decades to materialize. It will transform how we live, work and learn, and those changes will not be reversed when the virus threat is contained. A clear acknowledgement of this is, in my view, the best way to guarantee better policy outcomes and a stronger recovery.
With this in mind, I will turn to workforce interventions.
Some sectors will bounce back relatively unscathed, and they'll bounce back quickly. In these sectors, wage subsidy programs serve their purpose by avoiding disruption that would otherwise result in layoffs that would sever the employer-employee relationship.
In other sectors, labour demand has permanently shifted. Much of the job displacement that we've seen in recent months wasn't so much caused by COVID-19 as it was accelerated by it. Many of the functions most affected by the pandemic were already under threat from tech and automation. What we've seen in the pandemic is that labour-replacing automation is even more cost-effective because of its resilience to virus-driven shocks. Put simply, this means that in many sectors, labour demand has permanently shifted and wage subsidies will mask these shifts for as long as they remain in place. They'll delay the associated layoffs, but they will not reverse those underlying changes.
This means that before the government begins to phase out income support programs, it needs to proactively identify where labour demand has shifted and where it has surged to reorient its focus on retraining and upskilling programs to help repair the Canadian workforce for their new post-coronavirus economy.
To re-skill at speed and scale, government should focus on two distinct interventions: first, rapid upskilling for short-term demand surges such as retail grocery and last-mile delivery; second, longer-term re-skilling that can help workers move into careers aligned with future skills trends, like health services, remote work and remote education.
To this end, I have four recommendations.
The first is that the format of retraining is ripe for innovation. In Canada, we've tended to focus on multi-year degrees, but in most sectors microcredit modules can provide workers with targeted training in the most advanced skills more quickly and at far lower costs. Microcredits would be most effective if developed in concert with employers or industry associations to ensure that workers are provided with targeted skills that most closely match the needs of the Canadian job market.
Second, as government prepares to phase out the CERB, it should consider offering displaced workers the option to continue receiving it for one or several additional months on the condition that they take that time to complete micro-credentialing modules, particularly if these modules are developed in concert with employers. This would help ease their transition back into the workforce.
Third, government should create an online talent exchange that helps match those who have completed microcredits to employers. This would increase job market transparency and reduce frictions in worker redeployment. This kind of exchange was recently designed in the U.S. in just six days by a group of food sector companies. It was launched in April and has been extraordinarily successful at matching jobseekers to food sector employers experiencing short-term demand surges related to the pandemic.
Fourth, government should consider subsidizing retraining initiatives specifically for micro-businesses and SMEs. In Germany, the recent Qualification Opportunities Act subsidizes companies' employee training costs up to 100% for micro-businesses and up to 50% for SMEs.
To reiterate, government should, first, replace multi-year training programs with microcredits developed in concert with employers; second, consider extending CERB payments for those who decide to complete these microcredit retraining programs; third, create an online talent exchange that helps match jobseekers with employers; and fourth, subsidize the retraining costs of microenterprises and SMEs.
Now I'll turn to students, which, as a recent graduate, I may be most equipped to discuss.
There are many ways government can support students in this crisis. Few are more pressing than ensuring universal access to high-quality Internet. CRTC data show that 11% of Canadian households still don't have access to Internet, and even those who have it face massive disparities in connection speed and reliability. In a remote work environment, the inequities this creates cannot be overstated.
The Ottawa Catholic School Board recently recommended to students who didn't have Internet access at home to hunker down in parking lots to listen to lectures and complete their assignments. In Manitoba, the Garden Hill First Nation was forced to cancel the school year outright, citing poor Internet connectivity as a key factor in the decision.
My recommendation is simple: You should provide every student that does not have Internet at home with a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot device. The long-term work of this committee is to wire all of Canada to ensure universal broadband Internet. That could take years, and we don't have years. Wi-Fi hotspot devices cost about $10 a month, and they could immediately close the digital divide that remains a limiting factor for so many students.
Spectrum, the U.S. broadband provider, recently launched a program that provides one of these devices free of cost to any K-to-12 student who does not have Internet at home. The Canadian government should pressure Canadian carriers to follow suit and subsidize the cost of doing so if need be. As it becomes increasingly clear that social distancing measures will continue to limit in-school learning for one year or more, government needs to do everything in its power to ensure that all students have the Internet access that they need to succeed.
I'd like to say a note about disabled students. It's become almost trite to recognize that the pandemic has disproportionately burdened those least equipped to bear its weight, and students with disabilities are no exception. The additional support they've received through the CESB has helped them absorb the cost of purchasing ergonomic equipment and assistive technologies, but critical gaps remain in the delivery of online learning. Educational institutions in Canada have not historically prioritized the procurement of accessible technology. This means that the shift to remote learning has replicated, in their digital classrooms, the barriers disabled students already face in the physical world.
There are two cost-effective ways government can help. In the short term, government should pressure the companies that design the products, apps and schooling technologies currently in use to create a mandatory accessibility issue complaint mechanism with a prescribed timeline for remediation of reported issues. This would ease the immediate challenges of disabled students. Second, government should educate employers and universities on how to continue making remote work an option. This would broaden access to education and employment for students who might otherwise have been limited by their physical disabilities.
To conclude, the challenge before this committee is great, as these are difficult times, but great challenges can make great opportunities. No people are better positioned than the elected men and women of this committee to seize that opportunity, assert leadership and help Canadians build back better, ensuring we come out of this pandemic stronger, more resilient and more united.
That's a really good question, and I can think of quite a few.
For every sector of the economy that is going to suffer in this crisis, there's often going to be a few that will bloom, right? I think any technology that enables remote work and remote learning is going to do really well. That includes everything from home office furniture to software that allows you to collaborate on presentations and have meetings in a way that is enticing.
I think virtual reality is going to explode. I think that touch first technology—when you go into a store, rather than opening the door, for example, sensors allow you to do the things you usually do in the physical world without touching them—in the coming years is going to really surge.
A fun kind of rule of thumb is that anyone who trafficks in bits and boxes—so bits, as in Internet technologies that allow you to do things remotely, and boxes, as in letting you buy things without having to interact with the business itself—is going to do really well.
With regard to logistics companies, particularly in a country like Canada that is so big and so spread out, I think you'll see clear winners emerging because of the complexity of our logistics.
Then I think companies like Shopify, which allow small enterprises to participate in that bits and boxes experiment, where you could interact with customers without having to physically have them come—
I also thank the witnesses for being here.
My questions are for you, Ms. Bienvenu. First of all, I'd like to thank you for your testimony. You have indeed produced a very interesting article on several subjects.
Since time for questions is limited, I'll start with automation. We know that the whole issue of automation was already under consideration before the COVID-19 pandemic. I myself sat on the Commission des partenaires du marché du travail, in Quebec, which brings together the major labour organizations, employers and government departments. We considered automation to be part of the necessary adaptations, particularly in the manufacturing sector.
How will the pandemic accelerate automation? What has accelerated so far has been accelerated in an emergency situation. So I'm not convinced that this will continue, but I'd like to see it. Will that be enough to say that we'll go further on these issues?
There are advantages, but what are the disadvantages? Indeed, we're going to have to rely heavily on technology. By relying on technology in this way, how can we take into account its effects not only on the social level, but also on the knowledge level? When I speak of knowledge, I am of course speaking here of skills in the broadest sense, that is to say know-how as well as interpersonal or life skills.
Good afternoon, Mr. Chair, esteemed committee members and fellow witnesses. I would like to begin my statement by acknowledging that I speak to you today from Mi'kma'ki, the ancestral and unceded territory of the Mi'kmaq people.
My name is Bryn de Chastelain. I am the chair of the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations, or CASA. I am also president of the Saint Mary's University Students' Association and a fourth-year student pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree with a double major in political science and economics.
CASA is a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization that represents over 275,000 students at colleges, polytechnics and universities from coast to coast. Through a formal partnership with the Union étudiante du Québec, with which I will be sharing time today, we are a trusted national student voice.
CASA has been at the forefront of student advocacy efforts throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. We've been clear that students, like other Canadians, have been hit hard by the pandemic's economic and social impacts. At a uniquely vulnerable point in their lives, students have been blindsided by lost income, online classes, a summer of isolation and bleak job prospects following graduation.
Thankfully, on April 22, the federal government responded to our calls for support with a generous and significant student aid package. As a student leader, I would like to express my gratitude for this immediate and considerable support, which was extraordinarily necessary in these unprecedented times. Many students are now seeing immediate support from either the Canada emergency response benefit or the Canada emergency student benefit, which together are providing an irreplaceable stopgap for students. These benefits are helping students to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads, and we thank you for that.
I would also like to highlight the generous additions to both the Canada student grants and the Canada student loans, which were also announced on April 22. These improvements will help ensure that many students in Canada can continue to access and afford their education despite COVID-19-related hardship. These supports are welcomed by students across Canada, but not everybody has access to them.
I would particularly like to highlight the lack of support available for international students during this quarantine period. Let's not forget that international students in Canada contribute an estimated $21.6 billion to Canada's GDP and support almost 170,000 jobs. On top of that, many international students in Canada plan to stay and contribute to our economy once they have graduated. According to the Canadian Bureau for International Education, 60% of international students in Canada plan to apply for permanent residency once they graduate from school. Many also continue to live and work in Canada over the summer between semesters, and the COVID-19 pandemic has robbed them of their opportunity to support themselves.
These international students are stuck in Canada with no job prospects, with groceries and rent to pay for, and with little financial support from the federal government. As it stands, international students are ineligible for the Canada emergency student benefit, meaning that those who have made less than $5,000 in the past year are left without access to desperately needed assistance. The Canada emergency response benefit is available to international students, but the Canada emergency student benefit is not, and we see that as fundamentally unfair. Many international students cannot work while in school and have lost the opportunity to do so over the summer. They need support, and we're asking the federal government to leave no student in Canada behind.
Now, despite this gap surrounding international students, CASA is strongly supportive of the federal government's overall student aid efforts thus far. Looking forward, however, we at CASA are hearing that students are still very worried about their finances and their health, as well as the quality and accessibility of the upcoming digital semester. According to a recent poll that we at CASA commissioned, 77% of students in Canada report being considerably stressed by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. We're stressed about what the pandemic means for our future, about the health of our loved ones and about finding employment after graduation.
Students are reporting significant financial hardship despite the relief provided by the CERB and the CESB. Close to 70% of students in Canada say their summer employment plans have been negatively affected by COVID-19. Of that 70%, four in 10 say they've lost all of their regular summer income due to the pandemic, while 43% say they will be relying more on government loans to pay for the upcoming school year, and 59% say they are just as worried about covering their living expenses in January as they are today.
Students are seeing real financial hardship on the horizon, and that's why CASA is calling on the government to consider additional support for students beyond September 2020. Specifically, we are asking the government to extend the six-month interest-free moratorium on federal student loan payments past September 30, 2020.
Now, beyond financial concerns, CASA is also hearing that many students are second-guessing whether school in the fall is even worth it, given the less-than-ideal digital environment. Our data tells us that 39% of students have considered deferring or have already deferred their fall semester. Along with this, 31% have also considered switching or have already switched from full-time to part-time studies.
Students are rightly worried about the quality and accessibility of their classes in the fall, and we think the federal government can do more to ensure that our next semester is a success.
According to the CRTC, only 64% of rural residents have access to broadband Internet fast enough to sustainably access the kind of video conferencing applications used for online learning, compared to 100% of urban residents. The OECD also ranks Canada in the top 10 of the most expensive countries for broadband Internet access when adjusted for cost of living.
In the 2019 election, the Liberals promised to ensure that every Canadian would have access to high-speed Internet by 2030. CASA urges the federal government to accelerate this timeline and move forward with immediate steps to ensure that all post-secondary students have adequate access to reliable and high-speed Internet in time for school this fall.
Finally, we know that success in a digital classroom hinges on having the suitable technology to succeed. Digital learning, while necessary during the COVID-19 pandemic, will place the burden of possessing sufficient technology, like computers, on post-secondary students. According to our polling, almost 50% of students in Canada highlighted having the technology they need as a primary concern entering next semester.
That's why we're also calling on the federal government to ensure that all students have sufficient access to digital technology. Specifically, we're asking the government to commit additional funding to provide appropriate digital technology to any low-income student who needs it.
I would like to thank the committee once again for the invitation to come and testify and represent the voice of Canadian students.
I will now turn the floor over to my colleague Jade Marcil of the Quebec Student Union, and I look forward to answering your questions.
I want to begin by saying that I'm currently on territory that has been shared by many indigenous nations over the years, a land of sharing. I'm currently in the greater Montreal area.
Thank you for having me here today. I'm pleased to be with you.
I also want to thank my colleague, Bryn de Chastelain, for his presentation. The Quebec Student Union agrees with what he said.
My name is Jade Marcil. I'm the president of the Quebec Student Union. We're a group of university student associations that represents 91,000 students from many parts of Quebec.
I want to address two main topics. Since Quebec couldn't directly receive the financial assistance tied to Canada's loans and bursaries measures, but is receiving a transfer, we find it difficult to comment. However, we're very pleased with the assistance provided to students to encourage them to continue their studies. We sincerely hope that this assistance will be invested in the same way in Quebec.
Obviously, I want to talk about the Canada emergency student benefit, or CESB. This assistance came at just the right time to support students in the summer, when jobs are always harder to find. Of course, there are differences between the regions. However, given the very high unemployment rate, we know that summer job opportunities have decreased significantly. The CESB is really helping our students. Many requests have already been made. We're pleased to know that this measure really supports our students.
A proposal has been made concerning the CESB and the amount granted. We're very pleased to report that the inclusion of people who have special needs, who are living with a disability or who have a dependant was well received. We must also support people who are facing very different challenges.
The CESB amount is $1,250 a month. The amount is fully withdrawn if the student earns over $1,000 a month. The Bloc Québécois submitted a proposal in the House. We understand that this proposal wasn't adopted, given how quickly the government needed to act. We consider that the assistance may need to be increased based on needs in the fall. We know that the measure had to be implemented quickly. However, we're pleased that the measure was implemented because it supports our students.
I also want to talk about research funding in Quebec. We think that research funding is very important. Quebec established the Fonds de recherche du Québec. In Canada, there are federal granting agencies. We want to point out that the extension for student research projects is very good, since many projects were delayed or even suspended as a result of closures in certain areas. I'm thinking in particular of all the education research, since schools were closed.
We want to stress the importance of ongoing support for research in the coming months. The four-month extension could be made longer. The assistance will be needed for the continuation of research and student projects in the fall and winter, depending on the economic recovery and the easing of the lockdown.
We're quite satisfied with the Government of Canada's response. We're very pleased that students were taken into consideration and that financial measures were implemented quickly and effectively. We hope that students will remain a focus for support measures in the coming weeks and months.
Thank you again for having us here today.
Good afternoon, Mr. Chair, distinguished members and fellow witnesses. Thank you so much for the opportunity to speak with you today.
My name is Matt Reesor. I am the president of the University Students' Council at Western University. Alongside me here today is our vice-president of external affairs, Mackenzy Metcalfe.
I represent the interests of 30,000 undergraduate students on our university campus. Personally, I would like to thank the Government of Canada for the action that has already been taken to support post-secondary students. The aid package has provided much-needed financial support for many of us. We greatly appreciate your consultation with post-secondary students on the government's response to COVID-19, and are excited to see it continue throughout the rebuilding process.
As I'm sure many, if not all of you, have experienced, COVID-19 has transformed our lives as we know it. This March as our university classes moved online, Western students experienced a shared sentiment of uncertainty. As we attempt to understand the new normal that we are living in, concerns about the state of our academic and co-curricular experiences, the quality and accessibility of post-secondary education, and our ability to maintain social connectedness continue to stress the vast majority of students.
Looking back and reflecting on the early days of the COVID-19 response, many of us had no idea where our society would be in one week, let alone three months.
As we sit here today in London, local restrictions have been lifted and we are starting down the path towards the new normal. We are only certain of one thing: our lives will change forever as a result of this pandemic. It is my opinion that we are still unsure of what the change will be, and I think we need to take time to reflect before setting a course forward.
With that in mind, I will be focusing the rest of my time to speak on what I know for sure, and that is how students are dealing with COVID-19 right now.
Throughout this time, our biggest priority has been supporting our students. The USC is continually engaging with students through candid conversations and formalized feedback, and we would like to take this time to share their stories.
A few weeks ago, I spoke with a second-year social science student at Western University who was living away from their hometown. The student expressed immense gratitude for the financial support provided by the Canada emergency student benefit, which has helped mitigate their financial concerns for this summer. In the same conversation, however, the student expressed anxieties about the looming expenses of heading back to school this fall. Like many students, this individual works throughout the summers and nearly all evenings to fund their tuition, school supplies, rent, food and personal necessities.
Over the past several years, the student has not had much trouble finding jobs at home or in London. But this year as COVID-19 hit, this process has become much more difficult. This student has already signed a twelve-month lease they're now responsible for. Their parents have not been able to provide financial support for the past couple of years. This individual currently has enough money to pay for the first two months of rent on a new lease, but will rely on summer employment to pay for anything past that. The student is not sure how they will be able to afford rent in a few months, not to mention another year of tuition and the other list of expenses.
We appreciate the action the government has already taken to support students financially for the 2020-21 academic year. We request that the doubling of the Canada students grant and the removal of expected students and spouses contributions be extended to the 2021-22 academic year.
We've also heard concerns from many of our international students, some of whom have been unable to head home due to travel restrictions. Our international students pay considerable tuition fees and remain unable to access the CESB. We request that the government expand a pre-existing program or develop a new program to address financial concerns for these international students.
As a recent graduate, I can attest to the uncertainty of the job market. A recent survey by StatsCan has shown that almost one-third of students who had secure jobs prior to March 2020 have now lost them. The students of today are the workforce of tomorrow, and I know that the vast majority of students would take advantage of opportunities to engage in meaningful, skills-based work experience this summer and beyond.
As things continue to evolve in the coming months, we hope that the Government of Canada will continue to consult regularly with post-secondary students across the country to hear out their concerns and engage with their perspectives.
I think I speak for all student leaders when I say that we have the energy, the passion and the expertise required to inform your response to COVID-19 moving forward.
Mackenzy and I look forward to taking your questions.
Thank you for your question, Ms. Michaud.
First, the announcement was made on April 22. The student community then had to wait for some time to obtain the eligibility criteria for the Canada emergency student benefit, or CESB, which caused a bit of anxiety for students.
When the criteria were announced, the criterion regarding the$1,000 a month in employment income in particular raised some concerns for us. I understand that these measures were introduced very quickly. However, the Canada Revenue Agency or CRA website provides very little explanation for the $1,000 income criterion. Students had trouble obtaining clarification on their own. That said, the Quebec Student Union members have contacts, and they can find the information—sometimes by being insistent—and then pass it on to the students.
The main issue is that the $1,000 must be employment income and that loans and bursaries aren't included. In addition to the Canadian or Quebec loans and bursaries program, there are several other types of loans and bursaries for students. Take, for example, indirect research grants, such as the grants provided to a research assistant or teaching assistant. The criterion in question has led to confusion with respect to this component, primarily among graduate students. The CRA website should clarify these details. I know that many improvements have been made in recent weeks. However, things can always be done better. It would be good to improve the frequently asked questions, for example.
We're trying to inform the students. However, the government is in the best position to answer questions and clarify the programs that it introduced so quickly.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair. As well, I'd like to thank all the witnesses for their presentations.
Before I begin, I wonder if this is possible, Mr. Chair, and that is for us to invite the Canadian Federation of Students to come to committee, as they represent some 64 student unions across the country. I thought it was very informative to hear from the various student representations here today, but there are some that are missing. It would be I think beneficial for the committee to hear from them. I just want to put that out there, Mr. Chair.
On the issue of support for students, the impacts of COVID-19 and the stresses—the financial stresses, the uncertainty into the future and so on—and given that the Canadian emergency support for students is limited, we heard earlier from panellists and witnesses that the ongoing pressures on students and the substantive financial pressure on them are not really any different from those on anyone else, whether they're a student or otherwise, so the differential in the amounts paid to students in this emergency support is a concern to them. They were asking for the government to reconsider this.
As well, they were also asking for the government to reconsider some of the eligibility components. Some of the students may be in a situation where, after this school year, they are without a job, where some of the contracts or job opportunities have been cancelled. As a result of that, they are not eligible for support from the government. A case in point would be interns, actually. Many interns have contacted me and have said that their contracts have been cancelled. As a result, they would not be eligible for any financial support from the government. As well, because the internship is an unpaid internship, they also don't qualify even at this time.
I just want to ask our witnesses, in addressing those issues that were brought up, what their thoughts are and whether or not the government should be making adjustments in this regard. We can just rotate through. How about if we start with Mr. Reesor?