By Jakob Sanderson and Sarah Bonner-Proulx
While post-secondary education in Canada largely falls under provincial jurisdiction, the federal government has a major stake in ensuring that the students of today are the skilled workers, innovators and leaders of tomorrow.
This week, the two of us have joined our counterparts from the Undergraduates of Canadian Research-Intensive Universities (UCRU), a coalition representing over 250,000 students from some of Canada’s largest research universities, in Ottawa to lobby elected members of parliament on recommendations for how to improve our post-secondary system.
This includes a proposal for how to better retain international students as highly-skilled members of the Canadian workforce; ideas for how to expand paid research opportunities for undergraduate students; suggestions for supporting Indigenous learners who want to earn their degrees; and ways to increase student affordability and financial aid for those most in need.
First, some context: It’s no secret that the competition for talent within the global economy is intense. It’s also no secret that a massive demographic shift is currently underway in Canada as our population ages.
As of 2019, amid advances in health care and living standards that mean people are living longer than ever, seniors aged 65-plus comprised 17% of our national population; that proportion is set to grow to nearly a quarter by 2030. They now outnumber children 14 and under in the country. According to data provided by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), the worker-to-retiree ratio in Canada is now 4:1, but is projected to fall to 2:1 by 2035. This creates a dilemma wherein, at current rates, less taxpayers will have to support much more expensive health care systems and social security benefits.
One solution: fast-track international students into the Canadian workforce.
International students are familiar with Canadian culture and society; a 2018 survey showed that 60% of international students plan to apply for permanent residency status after graduating in order to live and work in Canada. This is a group that is very likely to successfully integrate into our country. They have been trained in our own institutions, are proficient in English and/or French, and are highly likely to make important contributions to our country, at the same time that they enrich their own lives by seeking out opportunities here.
They have also already made significant economic contributions through their payment of much higher tuition rates than domestic students, thereby providing vital resources to keep Canadian post-secondary institutions fiscally stable. Not to mention the billions of dollars they inject into the economy every year – $21.6 billion in 2018 alone, supporting some 170,000 middle class jobs according to federal government figures.
With this in mind we’ve been lobbying MPs to change the eligibility guidelines under the Canadian Experience Class (CEC) Express Entry program to allow international students to count full-time, work-integrated learning and entrepreneurship activity as eligible work experience within their applications for permanent residency. Considering our country’s anticipated labour market needs, we should be removing barriers for those with valuable work experience.
Speaking of labour market needs, undergraduate research provides key experience in the formation of critical thinking and problem-solving skills, as well as time management and decision-making. It cultivates the types of skills that the Royal Bank of Canada’s Future Skills Report (2018) identifies as increasingly in demand by the private sector.
In addition, our country is facing undeniable challenges in terms of climate change, housing, mental health – one estimate places the amount of lost productivity due to depression and anxiety at $50 billion per year – and the changing nature of work in an age when 50 per cent of jobs are at-risk of disruption in the next 10 years due to automation.
That’s why we’re pushing for the federal government to strengthen the Undergraduate Student Research Award (USRA) program – where undergraduates are given funding to conduct 16-week research projects under the supervision of an experienced researcher – to include 3,800 new spots for recipients in the social sciences, humanities and health sciences. Currently, students outside of natural sciences and engineering fields are ineligible to apply.
In doing so, Ottawa would play an active role in cultivating Canada’s next generation of researchers while also producing valuable knowledge about how we work and live in this new 21st century era. In addition, we’re asking that the federal government boost funding for these positions so that participants receive the equivalent of a $15 per hour livable wage during the duration of their project terms. At the current rate, the funding for these positions works out to an hourly wage of $9.38 – well below the minimum wage in every province and territory.
And yet, while looking forward, we must not also lose sight of righting past wrongs. This is especially true when it comes to tearing down barriers Indigenous students face in acquiring post-secondary education.
A major component within our meetings with MPs has been discussions about the historical and contemporary challenges faced by Indigenous peoples, including the disparity in educational attainment that Indigenous peoples have experienced.
One of the main public programs that supports Indigenous access to post-secondary education is the federal government’s Post-Secondary Student Support Program (PSSSP), which the Trudeau government laudably increased by $327.5 million in its 2019 budget.
That increase was important, especially considering the erosion of real funding for the PSSSP that has occurred over the years due to inflation and 19 years of a two per cent funding cap for First Nations which was finally abolished in 2015. The decline in real funding for PSSSP has limited how much the program has been able to benefit Indigenous learners, but we now have the ability to make up for that.
In order to provide equitable post-secondary education opportunities for Indigenous learners, we’ve asked the federal government to do the following:
- Increase funding for the PSSSP and create a long term strategy with Indigenous students and organizations on how the program should be administered, in accordance with Call to Action 11 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC);
- Ensure funding is equally accessible to students both on and off reserve and publish an annual report on progress in this area, in accordance with Calls to Action 8 and 9 of the TRC;
- Commit to fostering programs that include Indigenous language revitalization projects; call for more Indigenous language offerings in post-secondary institutions, in accordance with Call to Action 16 of the TRC;
- Focus on developing more opportunities for Indigenous knowledge practices to make their way into classrooms by providing funding and resources to post-secondary institutions to establish and improve Indigenous studies departments, in accordance with Call to Action 62 of the TRC.
Finally, we have reiterated the call to eliminate the tuition tax credit and divert the estimated $1.8 billion in unclaimed tax credits to upfront grants to be administered through the Canada Student Grant Program, while ensuring a percentage of these grants are earmarked for students most in need.
This is especially important for low income and working class individuals, as historically a disproportionate amount of the tax credit benefits have been claimed by those in the highest income bracket. A 2016 report from the Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO) notes that by 2015, the richest 20 per cent of families received $780.5 million, or over 37 per cent of the total benefits given out.
If the objective of the Tuition Tax Credit is to provide financial relief to students by offsetting the cost of education, then by most measures it is failing. Rather, financial support for post-secondary education should be provided upfront to all those who need it, rather than reserved mostly for those who can afford it in the first place.
By the end of this week student leaders from UCRU will have presented our ideas to 60 MPs and their staffers, nearly one fifth of parliament. If the reception we’ve gotten so far is any indication our voices – the voices of students – are being heard loud and clear all across the Hill.