Student Debt

Student Debt

“There are no immovable barriers to education.”
Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO
 
“From better health to increased wealth, education is the catalyst of a better future for millions of children, youth and adults. No country has ever climbed the socioeconomic development ladder without steady investments in education.”
Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO
 
“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
Nelson Mandela, former president of South Africa, 1993 Nobel Peace Prize laureate
 
RAW DEAL
 
Youth in Canada are getting a raw deal. Youth unemployment is over 13%. Underemployment, those taking part-time jobs while they seek a career, is at a staggering 28%. Students are taking on crushing debt loads and being robbed of the tools to recoup their investments. The average student in debt owes more than $25,000. Yet, all youth hear from the older generation is that if they worked harder, invested in their education more, or just ‘passed out more resumes,’ they would get a job. They hear that record-high tuition fees are just the ‘way it has to be’ and that to speak out against it is to be an entitled millennial. They hear that if they’d just be patient, career opportunities would eventually come. The reality, though, is that today’s youth face barriers that were never in place when their parents were starting their careers. We need to change how we look at post-secondary education. Rather than a private commodity that young people purchase to advance themselves, we need to see education as a public good. We need to see the shared value of empowering a generation of youth to learn a trade, train as scientists, or study the humanities. We can address our skills shortages and create a generation ready for the information economy. We can equip youth with the tools they’ll need to be good global and Canadian citizens. 
 
DEBT
 
Instead of making it easier for  students to get an education, the federal government has turned into Canadian students’ largest creditor. Students owe federal and provincial governments $15 billion. Almost 455,000 student have had to borrow to finance their education this past year alone. Government’s borrow money at prime interest rates, and then loan it back to students at a higher rate - some of the highest rates, in fact, in the world. And, despite default rates falling by more than half in the past decade, the Harper Conservatives’ have directed collectors to be more aggressive. Why are governments looking to make money off student loans?
 
Canadians know the value of a good education  But what about the harm inflicted by student debt? What happens to the student who graduates with a diploma in hand and a crushing debt load on their mind? What about the young Canadian that avoids getting an education because they don’t want to take on debt? What are the economic consequences of an indebted generation?
 
The cost to the Canadian economy of neglecting an indebted generation is more than we can afford. There is increasing evidence that taking on student debt has negative effects on student mental health, including difficulty sleeping, greater tension and anxiety. Many youth limit their own economic potential through debt aversion. Youth will be unable to buy houses, start businesses, or take any of necessary risks that we know help stimulate economies.
 
We are contributing to the gap between students whose parents can afford to pay for their education, and students whose parents cannot. Education should be the great equalizer. Instead, it is serving to reinforce pre-existing inequality. 
 
Even when young people are out of school, they face increasing pressure to take unpaid work for months or even years. While youth with support from their parents can advance their careers through internships, seen as a requirement in today’s job market, those that cannot are left behind. Youth work must be valued like all other work. We need to level the playing field. The Green Party will introduce legislation to ban unpaid internships in federally regulated industries and work with the Provinces to cease the practice altogether.
 
The Green Party also supports the creation of a Youth Community and Environment Service Corps that will provide federal minimum wage employment for 40,000 youth aged 18-25 every year for four years for a total of 160,000 youth positions. At the successful completion of each year-long program, there will be a $4,000 tuition credit awarded to each participant that can be applied to further education and training. Youth Service teams will vary in size depending on the projects undertaken, and will be given opportunities for career counseling and employment skills training during the course of the program. The Youth Community and Environmental Service Corps projects should be developed in close partnership with municipalities and based on local priorities.
 
Tuition fees are not the only thing students are struggling to afford. As tuition fees rise, students are having a harder time affording even to feed themselves. Food banks are popping up in campuses across the country. Textbook costs have risen at a rate 2.4 times that of inflation since 2008. The Green Party’s Guaranteed Livable Income (GLI), will also give the students the security they need to pursue an education without living in fear of falling into poverty. A GLI would provide a regular payment to every Canadian, at a level above the poverty line, to meet Canadians’ basic needs while encouraging additional income generation. For higher-income Canadians, the amount of the GLI is merely taxed back in whole. A GLI will give students the support they need to study, without having to sacrifice their mental and physical well-being.
 
Instead of ignoring youth who say they are getting a bad deal, we need to look at how the rules have changed for today’s students, and find ways to fix things.
 
FEDERAL INVESTMENT 
 
One of the main reasons students are in so much debt is that federal transfers for post-secondary education have been falling dramatically. While the federal government has put billions of dollars into inefficient RESPs and other savings programs, transfers have been steadily falling. According to the Canadian Association of University Teachers’ Almanac, “Federal government cash transfers for post-secondary education in Canada, when measured as a proportion of GDP, have declined by 50% between 1992–1993 and 2013–2014.” Where federal funding has fallen, students have been forced to pick up the slack through exorbitant tuition fees.
 
Graph of university operating revenue divided between private funding and government funding.
 
Source: CFS
 
While education is a provincial responsibility, the federal government still has an obligation to play a role. The reductions in transfers has left provinces without the ability to properly support students. We need leadership from all levels of government to ensure that universities and colleges have the resources and infrastructure that they need to provide an education without also providing a debt burden. A Council of Canadian Governments – representing the provinces, territories, Indigenous and municipal governments – would be best suited to work on a comprehensive strategy for our education system. The federal government needs to lead. 
 
Post-secondary education is increasingly necessary for a meaningful career. We cannot treat it like a luxury. The federal government needs to get out of the business of lending and instead provide non-repayable grants while we move towards the reduction and eventual elimination of tuition fees. 
 
The Green Party will develop a new Post-Secondary Act to promote accessibility. The Act will implement many of the recommendations of a Senate Committee’s report on reducing barriers to post-secondary education in Canada, including separating that the Post-Secondary Education (PSE) component of the Canada Social Transfer (CST) as an independent Canada Education and Training Transfer. We will also develop a national strategy on post-secondary education in collaboration with the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC). This approach has a number of policy benefits: collecting better data, recognizing and transferring credits, expanding online learning, and funding research and pilot projects. We could also work toward combating a crisis on our campuses - nearly 1 in 5 women will be sexually assaulted as students. University administration policies to reduce sexual assault, are most often out-dated, ineffective or simply non-existent. Collaborating, implementing best practices and getting better data on this appalling situation would go a long way to making our Universities safer spaces for our youth. 
 
The goal would be to enhance the accountability of provinces and territories for the federal funding they receive. This is a valuable approach to developing clear objectives for federal student support. The final arrangements could be subject to endorsement by the Council of Canadian Governments and formalized in a Post-Secondary Education Act. 
 
Any new federal investment should increase access to post-secondary education, and ensure that lack of income is not a barrier for students seeking funding. The current federal transfers for PSE provide limited direct support for students, and the modest expansion of grants in Budget 2015 will not cover the shortfall. Some $695 million was delivered in 2012 - 2013 through the Canada Student Grants Program, which amounts to less than $2000 a year for each of 357,000 indebted students. Most federal support goes directly to the universities. A $1 billion Post-Secondary Education Infrastructure Trust was established in 2006. In addition, approximately 80% of public support for university research in Canada comes from the federal government, much of it through the granting councils. We need all levels of government to work together on PSE objectives, as in other developed countries. Canada must establish direct funding to students to reduce the costs of post-secondary education - of which tuition fees are only a part - so that younger Canadians are not condemned to start their working lives under the shadow of unmanageable debt.
 
Our goal is to eliminate tuition fees. This will not happen overnight. Working with universities, colleges, and the Council of Canadian Governments, we will aim to abolish tuition fees by 2020. As a first step, the Green Party proposes that the federal government forgive and erase any existing student debt to ensure that no student has more than $10,000 in debt to the federal government. At the same time, the federal government should make all remaining and new student loans interest free. The federal government should also provide full-tuition bursaries for those who need them the most: Indigenous and low-income students. We need to remove the 2% funding cap and fully fund the program backlog for Indigenous students immediately. We need to move right away to needs-based full-tuition bursaries. We should be following the leadership of Green Party Candidate for Fredericton, Mary Lou Babineau and Cape Breton University President David Wheeler to abolish tuition fees in Canada. 
 
Subsidising tuition is a good investment. As economist Hugh Mackenzie has shown, “Clearly, public investment in postsecondary education pays governments back in full while helping to reduce the job risks taken on by students.” Public investments in education pay for themselves over time: “Whether measured in payback years, costs as a percentage of income tax gains, or returns on investment, public investment in postsecondary education is an investment that generates significant fiscal benefits in the long term.”
 
The federal government should follow the model recently adopted by Newfoundland: instead of lending students money for loans they may never be able to repay, we need to be looking at grants.
 
Investing in post-secondary education is an investment in the future of Canada. If we eliminate barriers to access to post-secondary education, we will emerge stronger economically, with engaged citizens able to compete on the world stage.