Strings attached

This year for the first time, PEI post-secondary students who are Employment Insurance (EI) eligible have been allowed to collect EI while attending school. This is an important change that will help make higher education more accessible for all our youth, and alleviate some of the burden of student debt. Additionally, the program encourages students to be actively employed during the summer break, which will no doubt bolster employment in our seasonal industries. The inclusion of University students within the PEI Career Connect program is a positive and timely change that puts us in line with our neighbouring provinces that have similar initiatives (see EI Connect New Brunswick and Fast Forward Nova Scotia).

However, while the introduction of this program and its benefits were touted by government and widely covered in the media, there has been very little effort to educate the public about the details of the program itself. Many of the students who are accessing the Career Connect program are first-time EI users, and do not know the ins and outs of the program. First-time or infrequent EI users often face challenges when trying to navigate the EI system. Even for our regular seasonal workers, the EI system is constantly changing, and many workers face uncertain off-seasons from year to year. In this case, the devil is in the details, and for students who are now collecting EI and accessing student loans, many will be surprised to learn that EI is taxable income that will significantly impact the amount of student loans they can access next year.

Of course, EI is a federal program. However, when the Province implements associated programs at a provincial level, such as this post-secondary education initiative, the PEI government has a duty to educate the public on all aspects of the program- the good and the bad, the give and the take. Additionally, more focus should be placed on career and financial planning for students, both requirements of the associated New Brunswick and Nova Scotia initiatives. Educating students and the public in advance would have increased awareness of the need for students to put aside some of their earnings to help offset the coming reduction in students loan amounts that most need to pay tuition.

Journalism instructor Rick McLean recently stated in the Guardian that while the PEI government spends millions of dollars to maintain a team of 31 communications staff, these resources are too often focused on “government ‘spin’ that can’t help but be aimed at garnering public support.” (Wright, Teresa February 3 2018). Focusing government communication on meeting the needs of Islanders first as opposed to the political goals of the government, is necessary for raising awareness not only of a program’s existence and benefits, but also to identify any strings that may be attached.

Trish Altass is the Green Party of Prince Edward Island's Shadow Critic for Workforce and Advanced Learning