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Interest-free student loans are the bare minimum

By Michelle Crystal Phan, July 14 2021—

A consistent and churning effect of the pandemic regarding financial and mental implications continues to impact many Canadian students, families and workers. To combat the struggles students face regarding finances and online schooling, bill C-14 was introduced by the Government of Canada. This bill officiates interest-free student loans for post-secondary students until March 31, 2023. Although not passed by the House of Commons yet, the National Student Loans Services Centre (NSLSC) has already implemented interest-free loans for students. This $4.1 billion investment aims to relieve financial stresses upon post-secondary students by removing additional interest on student loans and thus, less money paid by students.

Although having to pay interest-free student loans until 2023 relieves much of the financial pressure on students, I believe that fresh graduates and current post-secondary students are still being overlooked during the pandemic. Making student loans interest-free was the least the government could do for struggling students.

On average, a post-secondary student will accumulate over $26,000 in debt after graduating, with many suffering the financial burden years after they have graduated. Additionally, the lingering thought of having to repay student loans paired with the crippling financial burdens of the pandemic and plummeting job market doesn’t make it any easier. Since the pandemic, two out of three post-secondary students reported being extremely concerned with having no job prospects for when they graduate. This anxiety doesn’t come from anywhere except from the cut-throat job market post-graduation and little program support for students after school. So although removing interest on student loans does help, it’s not enough.

In addition to higher unemployment rates during the pandemic, many students expressed their frustration towards Canadian universities hiking their tuition fees. It’s quite obvious that post-secondary students are still being overlooked during the pandemic as universities continually increase their tuition during a time when many are financially struggling to find or keep jobs whilst adjusting to online classes. This was just done by the University of Calgary in the last Board of Governors meeting — tuition was raised for the Bachelor of Science in Engineering program, the Haskayne School of Business’ MBA program and the Cumming School of Medicine’s Medical Doctor program.

It seems counterintuitive and tone deaf to milk funds out of the very students that are struggling the most. To be honest, implementing interest-free student loans seems like the bare minimum for students, seen as an act by the Government of Canada just to “satisfy” surface-level student needs. Instead, decreasing tuition or providing accessible funding assistance for all students would relieve the pressures of having to pay more money for the semester. 

A common funding assistant program is the Canada Student Grant for Full-Time Students, which is available to low and middle-income students that are in school full-time. Although the government has increased the allowance of this grant, many students that are financially struggling tend to only be in school as a part-time student. Even with a part-time grant, the eligibility is much more extensive and leaves out students who fail to meet these standards but are still having trouble paying tuition.

The agglomeration of financial stresses, job prospects and tuition increases likely contributed to the 64.5 per cent of post-secondary students who reported feeling overwhelmed with anxiety within the past 12 months in their school semester. Although there are general mental health services provided by the government, it was difficult for me to find any programs that directly supported students, as most were offered by universities instead. For reference, the University of Calgary has a Mental Health Services page with workshops, self-help resources and counselling. This makes it seem like the financial and mental burden that a student carries falls onto universities’ backs, as student support from the government during the pandemic is minimal. 

Even if some services are provided to support students, creating a stress-free environment where students are relieved of the burdens of financial and future prospect stresses would disengage the need for having these programs at all. It all seems like a very reactive system, where students face the consequences of their struggles until the government finally introduces something like interest-free loans after the past hair-pulling year. 

The goal should be to prevent mental health issues from these external factors owing to the pandemic rather than fixing them once they’ve been felt by students. It seems as though because the government expects students to pay tuition no matter what, there’s no need for financial aid because tuition will be covered and the consequences will follow students instead. Post-secondary education is seen as more of a privilege by the government, owing to why there is little support for students. Although, it doesn’t justify pushing tons of struggling students under the agenda.

Things the government can do to help support students during this pandemic would be to lower tuition costs, have more accessible and direct resources regarding mental health and financial assistance and to have career readiness programs to aid students in finding jobs after graduation. It’s hard to say that students are being supported during the pandemic when they’re expected to worry about financial struggles and crippling debt, have little to no job prospects and stress, just to now be introduced to interest-free student loans. It’s hard for many students alike to fight for support from the government when the student body has been given a belittled voice.

This article is part of our Opinions section and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet’s editorial board.

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