University students struggle with high tuition, student loans and no jobs in ongoing pandemic

Post-secondary leaders are asking government to provide more supports for students who are in the midst of their degree programs, or just about to graduate

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Just days from the end of his third year of university, Justin Gotta has no job prospects as he stares down a second summer with looming student loans and higher tuition in what feels like a never-ending pandemic.

As an economics major at the University of Calgary, Gotta is required to complete a co-op work term before he can graduate by the spring of 2022.

But after posting dozens of resumes in his field of study, Gotta hasn’t heard back for an interview, and worries he may have to push back his graduation indefinitely.

“It’s so frustrating, not just for me but for so many students right now.

“We are still in a pandemic, so you would think the government would do something to help students, so we can get some experience, get the skills we need and help the economy, too.”

Gotta, who is also the students’ union representative for the Faculty of Arts, fears this summer will be worse than the last, when the federal government provided a portion of lost wages through the Canada Emergency Student Benefit.

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That benefit’s removal this summer is made more difficult combined with the UCP’s 2019 cancellation of STEP (Summer Temporary Employment Program), a wage subsidy program to incentivize Alberta companies to hire students.

Last spring, Gotta lost both his part-time jobs, working as an usher at the Scotiabank Saddledome and as a minor hockey referee.

COVID is still preventing either of those jobs from returning this summer. And opportunities for finance-related internships are also few and far between.

Now, Gotta is worried about his student loan payments, and the looming seven to 10 per cent hike in tuition this fall, thanks to UCP funding cuts.

“So many students have lost jobs since last year, and they’re really struggling,” Gotta said.

“A lot are thinking about taking a year off, they’re not sure if they’ll be able to afford university anymore.

“It’s just not right that students are facing so many barriers.”

Post-secondary leaders are asking government to provide more supports for students who are in the midst of their degree programs, or just about to graduate.

“Students want to work and we know many employers want to hire, both sides just need a little help,” said Frank Finley, president of the students’ union at U of C.

“At a time when students are paying more thanks to provincial cuts and resulting skyrocketing tuition, students are also being left out in the cold when it comes to finding a job.”

But Finley said since the provincial budget this February, students’ calls have fallen on deaf ears, with no provincial support for students identified in the Alberta budget and federal support for student jobs too limited.

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Taylor Hides, press secretary for Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides, said years of economic decline and now COVID restrictions have created limited employment opportunities for many Albertans.

But the province is working on initiatives to support post-secondary students, she said.

“Alberta’s government will be moving forward with the Jobs Now program that will help unemployed Albertans, including students, find meaningful work opportunities,” Hides said.

“Furthermore, Alberta’s government has invested $15 million over three years to create 1,200 new research-based internships with Mitacs, a non-profit dedicated to supporting applied and industrial research in mathematical sciences and related fields.”

Hides added the UCP will also be presenting “Alberta 2030” in the coming weeks, which will help strengthen work-integrated learning opportunities for students.

But students say they need help getting jobs now.

Michelle Benz will graduate from U of C at the end of April, but she’s only been able to secure volunteer work in her field, along with two part-time retail jobs.

“It just feels like the Alberta economy is always on this roller-coaster ride of ups and downs. But every time we try to recover, we never fully get back,” Benz said.

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“And after this pandemic, which I think is far from over, I don’t know if we’ll ever recover.”

Benz, who worked in the oilpatch before going back to university to earn a Bachelor of Arts in Urban Design, says even her long list of work experience has not helped.

In addition to her final semester studies, Benz is working on a volunteer research project for the City of Calgary’s transit department.

Still, there are no entry-level jobs available for her at the City, and the many private and public sector positions she applied for have come up cold.

Benz worries whether her two retail jobs will be enough to deal with student loan payments that will come due in the next six months, adding the province should at least consider deferring payments until the pandemic ends.

Hides said the UCP responded with supports on student loans last year.

“Throughout 2020, Alberta’s government put a six-month pause on student interest payments and increased financial support to our First Nations Colleges, and are continuing to accommodate growing demand for Student Aid.

“Support is still available through flexible repayment terms and the Repayment Assistance Plan, which sets affordable payments based on family size and income.”

eferguson@postmedia.com

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