April 23rd, 2020 - Alex Usher
If there is one thing that unites the higher education community right now, it is the fact that we are all so, so, tired. One thing after another. And yesterday, just as I was thinking about what nice non-coronavirus story I could tell you, the feds dropped a $9 billion program to support students through COVID. So naturally, this here is your explainer.
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The comms on this are a bit of a mess, but basically, this initiative has four pillars, to wit:

  1. The Canada Emergency Student Benefit (CESB, no word on how this will be pronounced, but my money is on “sezz-bee”). Almost exactly like the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), except the monthly value is $1,250 rather than $2,000, through to the end of August. Available to all Canadian students attending Canadian post-secondary institutions since the month of December who are not eligible for CERB – that is, it includes students who have graduated but have not yet secured a job. The presser does not break down the costs of the program, but my back-of-the-envelope math puts the cost of this in the $6 billion range.
  2. A series of changes to the Canada Student Loans Program for the 2020-2021 year. Max grants increased from $3,000 per year to $6,000 per year (they were due to increase to $4,200 anyway). Loan limits increased from $210 per week to $350/week. Personal and spousal contributions suspended (no apparent change to parental contributions). Also, to keep things somewhat proportionate, the feds are topping up the Post-Secondary Student Support Program (PSSSP), which transfers monies to individual Frist Nations in order to support students in PSE, by $75 million. Total cost: again, not quite clear, but my guess would be north of $1 billion, maybe as high as $2 billion.
  3. A “Canada Student Service Grant”, which is some kind of seriously ill-defined attempt to pay students for some kind of voluntary “national service” which “serves their communities”. In theory, this new grant will provide up to $5,000 for their education in the fall. Unclear how many people this is meant to effect.
  4. Support to grad students! $292 million to the granting councils in order to “extend expiring federal graduate research scholarships and postdoctoral fellowships, and supplement existing federal research grants, to support students and post-doctoral fellows”. 

So, what to make of all this? Well firstly it is absolutely, totally, mind-bendingly massive. In 2016-17, the last year for which I have good data on student financial aid, the total amount of non-repayable need-based grants given out by governments to students was about $2.6 Billion (this excludes Education Savings Grants, institutional grants, etc). Now, at one fell swoop they’ve added approximately $9 billion – basically quadrupling that figure. That is huge. 

Some argue that the CESB isn’t as good as CERB ($1,250 vs. $2,000), making this an unfair distinction. But as I have said before, CERB for four months ($8,000) is more that a lot of students make in a summer (given many of those jobs are not full time and/or at minimum wage) and it’s very hard for governments to leave some groups  better off  after a pandemic when so many will be worse off. So, some kind of CERB-minus (which is basically what CESB is) was inevitable. And yeah, it’s a bit weird that Canadian students at foreign institutions who came home are excluded and even weirder that international students have been deemed eligible for CERB but not CESB. But look, if you’re going to complain about it, first check out what kinds of relief packages have been wheeled out elsewhere in the world. I’ll wait. Done? Yes, indeed, this is BY FAR the largest student relief package anywhere in the world. So, maybe the “government insufficiently generous” line is not the best one to pick at this point.

Join Alex Usher and HESA on Fridays at 1 PM EDT for our free webinars on the key topics that are impacting post-secondary today.

Our topics for the next three weeks are:

  • April 24th: Managing Student Services during the Pandemic-with Amy Gaukel, Lassonde School of Engineering, York University
  • May 1st: How European PSE is Coping with COVID-guest forthcoming.
  • May 8th: Recruiting Grounded International Students-with Sonja Knutson, Memorial University of Newfoundland

Register here for this series --you can register once for all three of these webinars. Come with questions and to chat with your peers.

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 The student aid package is smaller but still significant. With grants being boosted by up to $3000 for some students, what that means is – if you add in the CESB – is that there are a fair number of students (minimum 250,000) who will be receiving over $8000 more in non-repayable assistance than they received last year. The decision to increase both grant and loan maxima, combined with the relaxation on student and spousal contributions means that there should be no student liquidity constraints next year. This is important for institutions as well as students: in practice, what the feds are doing it here is making it easier for institutions to hold the line on tuition fees next year, because it is now very difficult for anyone to argue that students are significantly worse off than last year.

So much for the relatively well-defined stuff and on to the rest. First, there is the graduate student funding, which is all heading through the granting councils. The specific commitment is to extend existing graduate and post-doctoral funding through the summer; the unspecific commitment is to “ supplement existing federal research grants”, which – who the hell knows what this means. New grants? But if so how to adjudicate? Additions to existing grants? I don’t know, this seems like a bit of a mess to me. Seems like Finance got permission to distribute money but didn’t get enough time to confirm distribution mechanisms/priorities. I guess we will see.

But as indistinct as the graduate funding seems, it’s nothing compared to the enormous policy void that is the Canada Student Service Grant, which can best be described as a “Hail Mary.” A national service system? Really? Who in hell is organizing one of those this month? Or is it going to be one of those things where various existing community organizations are going to “certify” that certain students volunteered in various community-minded ways (no possible way that could be abused, obviously). 

But, whatever, you know. We’re in pandemic bizarro-world. A few hundred million dollars of totally half-assed policy design might normally be grounds for roasting the government but really, it’s nothing in the current conditions. Maybe it works out, maybe it doesn’t. Focus on the big picture: what the feds have done here is huge (to repeat: the BIGGEST IN THE WHOLE DAMN WORLD), unprecedented, comprehensive.

It won’t last. It’s a one-off. It’s not a sign of things to come (though I would bet almost anything that PSSSP boost is permanent). Come 2021 nearly all of this will be gone. But it is still an absolutely extraordinary investment by the federal government in the students of this country, and one for which the entire sector should be grateful.

Stay safe, everyone.