Manitoba students say bumpy integration of provincial, federal loan programs leaves them waiting for funds

Some Manitoba post-secondary students say halfway through the fall semester, they’re feel left in the dark after facing significant delays in communications and funding, as work continues to integrate the provincial student aid program with the federal system.

Kimber Munford, a fourth-year PhD candidate at the University of Guelph who is from Manitoba, has applied for Manitoba student aid for the last decade as she’s pursued her studies.

But this year, an error has prevented her from being able to apply for a student loan. 

She’s been trying for months to get answers from Manitoba Student Aid on her situation, but almost two months into the school year, she’s still waiting.

“What I’d really love is some form of clear communication,” said Munford.

Kimber Munford, a fourth-year PhD candidate studying environmental science at the University of Guelph, says she flagged issues with her Manitoba Student Aid information in June. She’s still waiting for those issues to be addressed. (Submitted by Kimber Munford)

Last June, when Munford tried to apply for student aid, she learned her program length was listed incorrectly.

“Their website says it’s three years, when in actuality it’s four years,” she said, and the error meant she couldn’t proceed with her application.

She’s spent the last three months working with her university to get Manitoba Student Aid’s attention.

Munford considers herself lucky to have a scholarship to support her through the last year of her PhD program, but says if she’d experienced this kind of issue during her undergraduate degree, she would have had to drop out.

Last summer, Manitoba announced that it would integrate its provincial student loan program with the federal loan program to help streamline and simplify disbursement and administration. The changes became effective in July.

Manitoba Student Aid will manage existing loans until April 2023, before the National Student Loans Service Centre takes over, according to the province’s website.

Six provinces have integrated their student aid systems with the federal system under the National Student Loans Service Centre since 2001: Saskatchewan, Ontario, British Columbia, Newfoundland and Labrador, New Brunswick and now Manitoba, according to a spokesperson from Employment and Social Development Canada.

Those integrations “have been completed without significant challenges, and students have been receiving service under the one-student-one-loan approach,” the spokesperson said in an email to CBC.

‘Students are at their wit’s end’

But in Manitoba, student loan applications for the 2022-23 school year were not available until early July due to “regulatory and system changes required for integration,” according to the province.

Munford says she’s heard some students who applied for student aid before July had to reapply because their applications were deleted from the system.

In an email to CBC News, the province said IT issues identified in July have been resolved, adding that the integration of the federal and provincial programs is progressing “as expected.”

As of this week, 95 per cent of the applications for the 2022-23 school year have been assessed, the province says. The number of students receiving disbursements each day varies from 100 to 500 and has been increasing steadily each week, according to the province.

But that doesn’t seem to match what some students are saying.

“Students are at their wit’s end,” said Marie Paule Ehoussou, Manitoba chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students, in an email to CBC.

Marie Paule Ehoussou, Manitoba chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students, says some students are calling Manitoba Student Aid multiple times a day and still have not received any communication. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Some students trying to contact Manitoba Student Aid say “they have called on average 30 times a day to speak to a representative, only for their calls to drop,” according to Ehoussou.

“It has taken students hours if not days to get in contact with a person from student aid.”

Students who receive their aid too late may run into issues such as late fees, not being able to buy textbooks on time, losing eligibility for faculty bursaries and not receiving health-care coverage, said Ehoussou.

Moira Kennedy, a law student at the University of Manitoba, says she’s missed out on $5,000 to $8,000 worth of bursaries from her program, since Manitoba Student Aid did not issue her a notice of assessment in time, she says.

“It’s very obvious that the department isn’t functioning as it should be,” she said.

Kennedy applied for a student loan on July 14. She was told that her birth certificate and social insurance number information were incorrect, and she has spent the last three months trying to work with student aid to correct it.

She’s still waiting.

“I find it unacceptable for my SIN information to sit in a file for two months, and now I am losing out on thousands of dollars because of Manitoba Student Aid’s failure to act,” she told CBC. 

On occassions when she did visit Manitoba Student Aid in person, Kennedy says the office was filled with other students who applied months before and still had not heard anything. The phone lines were down, and students weren’t given the name or number of a supervisor when they asked, she said.

CBC attempted to phone Manitoba Student Aid on Tuesday and Wednesday. However, the phone line is closed on Tuesdays to allow staff to catch up with delays, according to the department’s voicemail. The office is closed on Wednesdays.

Kennedy says she has seen many Manitoba students voicing their frustrations with student aid delays on social media since the start of the school year.

“There’s a lot of posts [from people saying] that either their funding has been delayed or they haven’t heard anything,” she said.

“It’s really hard to get any sort of communication on what’s going on.”

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