Students shocked by surprising program cancellation

·5 min read

Woodstock's Jenn Burpee and daughters Caroline and Sarah know firsthand the value of the NB EI Connect program in their pursuit of university degrees.

They also understand the dire consequences of the program's sudden cancellation to New Brunswick students trying to afford and succeed in their post-secondary educational pursuits.

Under the program, students could collect earned EI benefits as they attended university. Last week, the New Brunswick Department of Post Secondary Education, Training and Labour quietly discontinued the program.

Jenn Burpee said she found out about the cancellation via social media. The surprise announcement threw a wrench into upcoming college plans for Sarah and hundreds of New Brunswick students like her.

A post on Thursday, June 23, by FÉECUM, Fédération des étudiantes et étudiants du Campus universitaire de Moncton, was among the first to advise the public of the government decision.

"FÉECUM regrets the cancellation of the NB-AE (NB-EI) Connection program, which allowed students to receive employment-insurance benefits during their studies," the student organization said in the release. "The Ministry of Post-Secondary Education, Training and Employment made the announcement discreetly on Thursday morning to some key groups via a service note."

In response to questions from the River Valley Sun on June 24, the department responded with only a general statement explaining its decision.

"The EI Connect program fell outside the federal government's intended eligibility criteria for Employment Insurance (EI) benefits and will no longer be offered," acting director of communications Paul Bradley stated. "The change will bring New Brunswick's practices in line with what other provinces are doing."

Jenn Burpee, like "FÉECUM, expressed frustration with the government failing to explain its decision or offer other options.

Burpee condemned the timing during grad week, as high school grads and returning university students try to finalize for the upcoming school year.

She explained her daughters know several students, like Sarah, who planned on EI Connect to cover a significant portion of post-secondary costs, whether it's tuition, rent or residence, or ongoing living expenses.

FÉECUM president Jean-Sébastien Léger said the provincial government's decision threatens the well-being of students already facing precarious situations

"No reasonable alternative has been offered to make up for the profit gap left by the program's cancellation," he said. "Basically, students are being told they just have to go into more debt, drop out of school, work harder, or cut off essential commodities. This is pathetic."

The government statement, and Premier Blaine Higgs, defended the program's cancellation, saying the program was a topic of conversation between the federal and provincial government officials for several years.

"Employment Insurance (EI) was never intended to fund post-secondary education or serve as a form of student aid," said Bradley in the department's statement.

In a media statement, Victoria-La Vallée MLA and official opposition Post-Secondary Education, Training and Labour critic Chuck Chiasson said Premier Higgs had opposed the program since its creation.

"His comments demonstrate clearly just how out of touch he is with the struggles average families are having to pay for post-secondary education," Chiasson said.

The department statement cited several alternative government support programs, including Renewed Tuition Bursary, the New Brunswick Bursary, other provincial or federal grants, loans and bursaries, interest-free student loans and the Repayment Assistance Program.

"What about the students who don't qualify?" asked Jenn Burpee, noting not everyone has access to these programs.

She noted that students forced to seek student loans face heavy debt upon graduation.

Chiasson said the Higgs government EI Connect decision, in addition to cuts to previous student programs, is putting university education out of reach for a large segment of New Brunswick youth.

"Where is the focus on helping the students facing high tuition costs?" he asked. "Blaine Higgs is making post-secondary education inaccessible for low-income students — it's becoming an opportunity for only the elite.

Jenn Burpee said students worked long, hard hours to qualify, needing as many as 600 hours of work.

Burpee said the program denied Caroline's application during her first year of university, telling her she could have continued to work at her Dairy Queen job. Burpee said the program is geared to those who secure enough hours on seasonal and summer jobs.

Caroline, who qualified for EI Connect through her second to the fifth year, said the funds covered her rent and food costs, allowing her to concentrate on her studies leading to her graduation from UNB with a degree in electrical engineering focused on biomed.

Sarah, meanwhile, saves her EI benefits to pay her tuition at the beginning of the following year as she pursues her criminology degree at Carleton University.

Students don't automatically qualify for the program. First, they must apply each year for the program and then qualify for EI benefits.

Caroline said she was "very grateful" for her access to the program, which allowed her to graduate without the weight of a heavy student debt, but worries the program's cancellation could hinder, even end, some students' educational dreams.

Her mother agreed, noting while tough on their family, it will be "devastating" for some families.

The department's statement appeared to direct students to work while attending university.

"We have heard from many employers who are desperate for workers, especially those in the hospitality and service industry who would traditionally have access to students working part-time," the government spokesperson stated.

Jenn Burpee said part-time work is not an option for many students who strive to handle the workload required to complete the program. She added that many students, including her daughters, add to their growth and resume by volunteering with charitable organizations and professional groups.

"Both have been active members in their school community," she said, noting Sarah was this year's recipient of the Jay Nordenstrom Volunteer award for Carleton University.

During her university years, Caroline was involved with women in the sports committee and engineering undergraduate society. She competed in cross country and volunteered with the women's basketball team as a manager.

"Not much time to work part-time, go to school with good grades and give back to your community," Jenn said. Which is what we want from our upcoming generation.

Jim Dumville, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, River Valley Sun

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