Many post-secondary students in Nova Scotia are scrambling to find enough money to go back to school in the fall after the federal government requested a change to a program that allows people to draw employment insurance benefits while studying.
Students in the province’s Fast Forward education program don’t have to look for work while on EI, and can instead enrol in approved programs to update their skills and training.
“I’m extremely devastated by the news, me and along with all the students I know, because a lot of us really depended on this money when we go back to school,” said Jacqueline McNeil, a science student at Université Sainte-Anne.
Employment and Social Development Canada is now requiring participants to have been in the workforce for at least 24 months, which excludes hundreds of students from accessing the program.
Under the new rule, the province anticipates 540 students will no longer be eligible — a 30 per cent reduction of the over 1,800 people who benefited from the program in Nova Scotia last school year.
Study part time or take a year off?
Without the additional funding, some students are considering reducing their course load to part time or taking a year off to save enough money to continue their programs.
In addition to her student loan, McNeil was able to draw the EI she accumulated from summer jobs to help cover her rent and expenses while she lives in Church Point, N.S., during the school year.
Now, she’s no longer eligible.
‘No other option’
She plans to try to save enough money this summer to remain a full-time student.
“If I end up running out of money and the student loan can’t cover [the balance], I’m going to have to switch from full-time schooling to part-time schooling because I’ll have no other option,” said McNeil from her Sydney home.
“It’s pretty awful honestly. I don’t think it’s right. I think if you can apply for EI and get unemployment, we should still have access to these benefits. It’s money that we earned.”
The province’s Department of Labour and Advanced Education said the federal government asked that the program’s intention be changed to ensure applicants are unemployed workers taking training during a period of unemployment.
“The program is not intended to fund full-time students,” said department spokesperson Shannon Kerr.
Before the change, Fast Forward criteria permitted people who have been out of high school for a minimum of 12 months to access the program as long as they qualified for EI, said Kerr.
The criteria for new applicants came into effect on June 7. Some current applicants will be able to continue in the program until the end of the year.
Summer or part-time employment for people enrolled in full-time school does not count toward the 24 required months.
Employment and Social Development Canada did not say how many programs across the country the change affects.
They also did not say the reason behind the change.
Nova Scotia’s program launched in 2015. Changes to EI eligibility the following year allowed students working in the summer months to access the program, said Kerr.
Dalhousie engineering student Allen Cox doesn’t know if he’ll again be eligible to use the program.
The sudden change has left him in the lurch as he considers whether he’ll need to take a year off school to earn money.
“A year’s not the end of the world, but it wasn’t my plan,” said Cox, who used the program for the spring term once he heard about it.
Participants were notified of the change by letter on June 10.
Cox said with school resuming in September, that “isn’t very much time to come up with money you thought you had available.”
Had the rules not changed, he estimated he would have been able to draw around $10,000 of EI in the upcoming year — a larger sum than most full-time students would earn because of his program’s four-month-long work terms.
Roughly half of his class of about 80 people are enrolled in the program, he said.
“There’s a lot of students in my degree worried about it,” said Cox.