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Student groups concerned over federal budget

UTSU, CFS, OUSA believe budget prioritizes older people over youth
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Canada’s 2014 federal budget prioritizes older Canadians over young people, say a number of student groups. Announced on February 11, the budget features spending of around $45,000 for each person over age 65, compared to around $12,000 for each person under age 45. The Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance (OUSA), and the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) have expressed concerns over the budget.

Dr. Paul Kershaw, a professor at the University of British Columbia (UBC) School of Population and Public Health and founder of Generation Squeeze, a campaign aimed at increasing government spending on Canadians under age 45, argued that today’s young Canadians are affected by lower wages, higher costs of living, and worse environmental conditions than ever before. However, Kershaw noted, federal government policy continues to focus on the aging population.

Kershaw pointed to an approximately $12 billion annual increase in spending on Old Age Security and medical care for people over 65 since the last federal election, compared to a $2.2 billion annual increase in spending on people under 45 over the same time period. He believes that increasing government spending on people under age 45 from $12,000 to $13,000 would allow the federal government to make substantial policy changes to support young people, including more affordable child care, shorter work weeks, and lower student debt levels.

“Nobody wants government budgets to protect spending on seniors at the expense of investing in their kids and grandchildren,” Kershaw argued. “Unfortunately, governments will continue this trade-off until we build a powerful organization that speaks up for younger Canada.” Kershaw emphasized that the policy changes could be made while safeguarding medical care and retirement income for the aging population.

Jessica McCormick, national chairperson of the CFS, also asserted that the federal budget fails to meaningfully address issues facing youth. McCormick’s concerns centre on youth unemployment and student debt. In the past, the CFS has called on the federal government to address student debt by expanding the Canada Student Grants Program. The program provides non-repayable financial assistance to students based on financial need.

McCormick also emphasized the importance of intergenerational equity, arguing that gains for older generations should not come at the expense of young people. “In the past, students have supported campaigns for retirement security, and we have received support from retirees on our campaigns for accessible post-secondary education,” McCormick noted. “It’s unfortunate that the federal government has ignored the needs of youth in the budget,” she added.

UTSU president Munib Sajjad said that the students’ union stands behind the CFS. “The federal budget has failed to address the growing student debt crisis and the lack of accountability over post-secondary education funding that the federal government continually ignores,” Sajjad said, adding: “To not address student and youth unemployment is short-sighted and destructive to our society’s future.”

Like McCormick, Sajjad characterized federal government policies on student debt and youth unemployment as inadequate, noting that national student debt exceeds $15 billion and youth unemployment for workers aged 20–29 stands at 400,000. While Sajjad rejected the idea that young people and elderly people should have to compete for government resources, he emphasized that the government seems unwilling to invest in youth.

Stéphanie Rubec, manager of media relations with the Department of Finance, brushed off concerns that the budget failed to address young people. “While Canada has one of the highest youth employment rates among its Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) peers, ranking ahead of countries such as Germany, the United States, Sweden and Spain, more can be done to ensure young Canadians are receiving the training they need to realize their full potential,” she said.

Rubec pointed to a number of new and existing programs that support training and employment for young people. For example, the budget introduced the Canada Apprentice Loan, a program that expands the Canada Student Loans Program to provide apprentices registered in certain skilled trades with access to over $100 million in interest-free loans annually.

The budget also included $40 million for up to 3,000 full-time internships for post-secondary graduates in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and the skilled trades over the next two years. McCormick claimed that this program is inadequate, as it only helps about one per cent of currently unemployed youth between the ages of 20 and 29.

Rubec also pointed to over $10 billion in existing government support for post-secondary education through loans, grants, and other investments. “Canada places at the top of the rankings of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in terms of post-secondary educational attainment, thanks in part to these federal supports for students,” said Rubec.

McCormick claimed that this government support fails to address the underlying issues of high tuition fees and student debt. “Financing post-secondary education through student debt is an unfair model that results in low- and middle-income students paying more for their education than students who can cover the costs up front,” she noted, adding: “these measures do nothing to address the significant barriers many students face in accessing higher education.”