Covid relief for students doesn’t guarantee all student needs are met

A universal Emergency Response Benefit makes more sense than patchy community supports

The CESB helps keep some students financially above the COVID-19 pandemic. Illustration: Tiffany Chan/The Peak

By: Nicole Magas, Opinions Editor

On April 22, Prime Minister Trudeau proposed legislation that would grant post-secondary students and recent graduates access to their own pool of COVID emergency relief funding. The Canada Emergency Student Benefit (CESB) would provide students with $1,250 per month until August 2020. Students with disabilities or those caring for others would receive $2,000. A summer grant program offering up to $5,000 for student volunteers, and a $75 million pool for Indigenous students, have also been proposed.

On the surface it would seem quite generous for the federal government to invest so much (a total of $9 billion) specifically for students. And in fact, it is especially timely as many of the jobs that students rely on — typically part-time employment in the service sector — have now been shuttered due to the pandemic. Students who have completed their studies as far back as December 2019 also get a bit of relief with this fund. However, when compared to the funding that is currently being offered through the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), it’s clear that students are getting short-changed in a big way with CESB. 

The CERB was created to avoid over-taxing Employment Insurance (EI) funds. Instead of having 7.3 million Canadians apply for EI all at once, the CERB funnels applications who lost their jobs specifically because of COVID through their own stream. Those applying to CERB must have had an employment income of at least $5,000 in either the 2019 tax year or in the last 12 months — this is a major sticking point for a number of demographics and communities, students among them. Full-time students who are unemployed or work limited hours (either due to seasonal employment or irregular shifts) may not make the $5,000 cut off. The CESB is intended to close that gap.

However, some quick head-math shows that students applying for CESB will receive much less than they could otherwise get through CERB, if they qualified. If approved, CERB recipients are eligible for $500 per week for 16 weeks, or roughly $2,000 per month for four months. This difference doesn’t make a lot of sense. It’s not like students don’t also have adult expenses that need to be paid. The cost of housing alone for students who don’t live rent-free can easily reach the $750 difference between CERB and CESB, not to mention tuition isn’t cheap either. Even for students who do live at home, it is likely that they have family members who have also lost employment due to COVID, making overall household expenses tight all around. 

Additionally, the creation of the CERB and the CESB leave international students in a bit of a lurch. Student expats who chose to remain in Canada are eligible for the CERB but not the CESB — but only if they make the $5,000 cut-off. Given that international students face restrictions on how many hours a week they can work while classes are in session, reaching this cut-off may be even more difficult.

All these difficulties beg the question: why not simply make the CERB universal? By this I mean a single relief fund that can be applied to for anyone residing long-term in Canada. Given that COVID relief funding for seniors financially affected by the pandemic is going to be its own separate thing, it seems ludicrous to keep patching all the financial leaks in various populations with separate piecemeal funds. A universal relief fund would provide all people living in Canada who are without income during this crisis with enough temporary funds to see them through this first wave at least. This would also ensure that those who need help get it in a timely way, instead of waiting for new relief proposals to be approved through Parliament.

As has become a common refrain now, we’re all in this together. There’s no good reason why all of our financial concerns shouldn’t be addressed together as well.

Correction (May 12, 2020): A previous version of this article stated that students with disabilities could receive $1,750 from the CESB.