OP-ED: UNBSJ students left struggling with the cancellation of the NB-EI Connect Program

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As many university students know, the Government of New Brunswick announced the cancellation of the NB-EI Connect program, without any warning, on June 23.

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In an email announcing the termination of this program, the Government of New Brunswick (GNB) confirmed they will no longer be offering Unemployment Insurance to post-secondary students.

The decision to slash the funding for postsecondary students caused many students to wonder and stress about whether they would be able to afford to return to school this September.

Why does this matter?

NB-EI Connect is an essential financial program for students in New Brunswick. Especially post-pandemic, with inflation at an all-time high (of eight per cent), most students have relied on this program in the past to help pay their food, rent, and utilities during the academic year.

Students are already often lacking aid from Federal or Provincial loans, and NB-EI Connect helped to relieve the costs of living for many UNBSJ students. The funding this program provides is unequivocally essential. 

Future employment positions with many companies, businesses, and the government require post-secondary education. Without aid from the government, most students will be scrambling to find funding, digging themselves into deeper debt, or faced with the choice of dropping out of school. 

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NB-EI Connect’s origins

The NB-EI Connect program was created in 2016 and provided employment insurance benefits to eligible post-secondary students. New Brunswick already has employment and labour shortages, and the decision to cut funding will only decrease the number of graduates and future post-secondary enrollments.

In the email announcing the cancellation, the Department of Post-Secondary Education, Training and Labour said, “given the province’s current labour market challenges, NB-EI Connect also conflicts with the province’s efforts to assist employers in filling job vacancies.”

“We have heard from many employers who are desperate for workers, especially those in the hospitality and service industry who traditionally have access to students working part-time,” the statement said in an email.

The response

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Paul Bradley, a spokesperson for the department, said to Global News that the employment insurance program was never intended to fund post-secondary education or act as financial aid. However, there have been no efforts from the provincial government to rectify this dramatic decrease in funding.

NB-EI Connect allowed students to focus on their post-secondary education without worrying about their finances or having to dedicate more time than they have to work a part-time job. While there are other supports available, they are very minimal and do not provide close to the amount of support the NB-EI Connect program did.

Ever since the decision was announced by GNB in June, students and student unions at post-secondary institutions across the province are pushing back against the change calling for a correction.

UNB-SRC’s response

The UNB Students’ Representative Council (UNB-SRC) announced in a response to the cancellation of this program, on June 28, saying that they find this decision,

“…to be out of touch with the needs and problems of students, especially coming out of the pandemic that was financially destructive for many students”.

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The UNB-SRC also commented on how this change will harm, in particular, mature students, students with dependents, and students with disabilities the most. 

“Recent student feedback on this issue has also shown us that this is quickly becoming a mental health issue as well as an economic one, as it is leaving many students in a state of financial distress and unsure of their future,” said President Devin Debly about the cancellation of this program.

Debly also called on GNB to do four things: increase mental health resources available for students, extend the grace period of NB-EI Connect one year, have student consultations, and give ample warning time when making drastic changes to students’ livelihoods in the future, and increase the grant portion of student loans to help counteract the fiscal harm on students.

“The removal of the program created many raw emotions”

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The Baron reached out to fellow UNBSJ students to get their testimonials on how the termination of this program has affected them this September.

Concurrent Education/Arts student Brady Rimes said,

“With the removal of New Brunswick EI Connect and nothing to reside its place, like many other students, I was impacted by this rush decision. The removal of the program created many raw emotions. My final academic year at UNB was unknown and the fear of not being able to graduate, because I could not afford to live and go to school full time was real.

With the rising costs of rent and food, I had to make the decision on whether to drop out of my program (because part time is not allowed) or continue to go to school. As a mature student, student loans did not cover my living expenses and all my tuition.”

Rimes reflected that EI connect had allowed him to concentrate his efforts on his academics which led him to making the Dean’s list.

He highlighted that he had “…worked 823 hours, which would have benefited me by making ends meet. To be eligible for NB EI Connect, the applicant must meet the minimum hours for unemployment, which is 420 hours. Like many other students, I will struggle, however, graduation means is important.”

Wolfgang Duechtel/The Baron

“I just want to have a better life for my daughters”

Another student, Melanie Clark also commented on how the lack of funding has severely impacted her, saying

“I am a hard-working single mother of two who is just trying to better her life; however, the Government of New Brunswick seems to be taking me down one peg at a time.”

Clark is in her third year of university and worked from May to August to meet the requirements of EI connect.

“I just want to have a better life for my daughters.” Clark emphasized.

When EI connect got scrapped, Clark decided to approach her Social Development worker to see if there was an option for her. However, they never got back to her. She called Social Assistance and was informed that she did not qualify for it.

“I am now worried about what this fall has to offer. A budget can only be stretched so far; I now must find a part-time job on top of full-time school, plus I am a mother of two children. Finding a part-time job will also require additional childcare, which will be an added expense. I am afraid that I won’t be able to afford my basic needs, as I am already living on very little.”

Clark noted that her rent is to be increased in December on top of the cancellation of the program.

“I hope that my story may influence a change in policy. A single mother should be able to work hard and get ahead in life, but that seems to be impossible even if you do everything right.”

Wolfgang Duechtel/The Baron

“EI Connect program was the deciding factor for my ability to apply to UNB 2 years ago”

Wendy Storey was also affected by this decision, speaking with the Baron:

“I am a mature student, and the EI Connect program was the deciding factor for my ability to apply to UNB 2 years ago. Therefore, the unexpected discontinuation of the program and lack of help from the government created an immense amount of unnecessary stress for my third year of university and other students impacted by this decision.”

Storey was disappointed in the fact that GNB afforded students no warning in the removal of the program, two months before classes were to begin. She emphasised the fact that many mature students are not eligible to take out a student loan.

“I am in a program that requires me to take on a six-course load each term, so finding a job willing to work around my school schedule and to work enough hours to supplement the loss of receiving Employment insurance without negatively impacting our grades is challenging.”

Storey highlighted the similarities of students who collect EI connect to seasonal workers who receive Employment Insurance on the months that they are off.

“Except in our case, we are working hard on educating ourselves so that we can become permanent members of the workforce, making us less likely to draw from Employment Insurance in the future.” she says.

The Baron reached out to Wayne Long and the Department of Post-Secondary Education, Training, and Labour for a statement, but they did not respond within deadline.

If you are a student that is affected by the cancellation of EI connect and would like to have your story highlighted, email editor@thebaron.ca today.

Taylor is in her fifth year of her Bachelor of Arts/Education and is double majoring in English and Psychology. She has an affinity for all things Shakespeare, loves old books and has recently discovered a love for gardening! When not at school or work, you can find her perusing thrift stores, collecting beach glass, or watching birds. She is a proud Taylor Swift fan (we only listen to Taylor's Version here) and also believes pasta should be a food group and that gummy bears qualify as a healthy breakfast.