New Brunswick

U of M graduate seeks answers on law school bursary exclusion

A University of Moncton graduate has spent two years trying to get firm answers from the province about why its student financial aid program doesn't cover law or medical school programs.

Marc-André Desjardins files complaint with ombud over lack of answers from province

Marc-André Desjardins, a University of Moncton law graduate, says he's sought answers from the province about why its bursary program for students from low-income families excludes medical and law students. (Marc-André Desjardins)

A University of Moncton graduate says he's frustrated after two years seeking answers from the provincial government about why law and medical students can't access a financial assistance program for low-income families.

Marc-André Desjardins says he's filed a complaint with the New Brunswick Ombud's Office after trying to understand why students in  professional schools aren't eligible for assistance under the province's tuition relief for the middle class program or its free tuition program.

"They don't have an answer," Desjardins said. "I'm just trying to get a straight answer out of them."

Desjardins, who graduated this year, applied for assistance and was denied in 2016, when it was known as the tuition access bursary. 

He now owes about $50,000 after he took out a line of credit to complete his studies, an amount he expects will take a decade to pay off.

He's living with his family in the Grand Falls area to save money while articling, one of the next steps to becoming a lawyer. 

Student group agrees

Emily Blue, executive director of the New Brunswick Student Alliance, said the group representing students across the province has called on the government to allow law students to qualify.

"However, that doesn't seem like something they're interested in at this time," she said.

Desjardins provided CBC News with copies of emails and letters with various provincial officials, including a response from Premier Brian Gallant, to his requests to understand the exclusion of law students.

Earlier this month, Desjardins sent the same documents to the ombud, an office mandated to examine complaints against the provincial government.

The ombud's office declined to comment, citing a policy of not confirming or denying complaints it has received.

No interview provided

Roger Melanson, minister of post-secondary education, training and labour, would not be interviewed either.  

A written statement attributed to Melanson did not address why law and medical students aren't included in the program.

The programs are meant to cover costs for students from low-income families to attend public post-secondary institutions in the province.

Social work and education programs are eligible.

"It would seem appropriate to extend eligibility of these grants to students pursuing undergraduate law degrees as well," Blue said.

Doesn't see burden on province

The organization estimates about 140 of the 400 law students at University of New Brunswick and University of Moncton are from New Brunswick.

In a letter to the minister last year, the group says that expanding eligibility wouldn't necessarily create an additional financial burden on program budgets.  

Donald Arseneault, the former post-secondary minister, said in a letter to the group last year that the government opted to introduce the program to benefit the "majority of students from low and middle-income families obtaining their first undergraduate degree" attending public post-secondary institutions in the province.

The law faculty typically requires a prior undergraduate degree or several years of an entry level undergraduate degree, Arseneault wrote.

In the province's written response to CBC, Melanson said law or medical students can use the free tuition program and the tuition relief for the middle class program during their undergraduate degrees.

The province made the distinction between first and second degrees in an online question-and-answer page about its tuition access bursary in 2016. 

Although Bachelor of Medicine and Juris Doctor of Law degrees are considered undergraduate degrees, they are generally second degrees, and students in those programs would not be eligible for the tuition help. Those students would, however, be eligible for assistance while completing their first undergraduate degrees, the province said.

'We didn't benefit'

The two tuition programs didn't exist when Desjardins received his bachelor's degree from St. Thomas University.  

And a program he hoped to use as a St. Thomas graduate was eliminated by the province. 

In 2015, the Gallant government received backlash from the public for cutting New Brunswick's tuition rebate program, which could reach a maximum of $20,000 for graduates who stayed in the province and worked after graduation.

"We didn't benefit from any of the help that the government is offering or was offering, so for that reason we're more in debt than other students in New Brunswick," Desjardins said.

About the Author

Shane Magee

Reporter

Shane Magee is a Moncton-based reporter for CBC.

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