According to the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), the average Canadian university student has accrued $28,000 by the time they graduate. The number alone is chilling enough, but for some Ontario students, the debt problem comprises more than just a hefty OSAP tab. There’s interest on that debt, collection threats, withheld diplomas, repayment deadlines, and post-degree jobs that don’t pay enough to pay it all back.
Thankfully, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has recently axed a condition that cut support to loan recipients making over $100 a week, a policy that effectively ensnared students in a low-income quagmire. Every time they tried to climb out of the debt trap, the government dumped another bucket over their heads, subtracting a funding dollar for every buck earned over the limit. Now, students can reap the OSAP cash to which they’re entitled, while having the option to boost income through employment earnings, allowing them to avoid accruing debt from banks and credit cards.
While this move seems to signal that the federal government recognizes the seriousness of student, Trudeau has made no move to pressure provinces to limit tuition fees themselves. As such, the crisis remains driven by two primary factors: high tuition and lack of individual funding.
Only 15 years ago, Ontario tuition stood at about half its current level. According to U of T, this is the province’s fault: the 2011 budget report declaimed inadequate government support, which has fallen since operating grants were frozen in 1994. That loss, the report says, is directly to blame for the eight to 10 percent annual tuition increase. And tuition will continue to rise — meaning bigger loans for students — unless universities receive appropriate provincial funding.
In addition to dilated tuition costs, Canada’s student debt problem lies in a disparity between personal loan maximums and the real prices students pay to live and learn. While U of T places the monthly cost of living at $1,500, the 2014 OSAP review manual calculated that single independent students were only in need of $1,124. The gap, when there is one, might be filled with private loans, leading to the aforementioned debt troubles.
Why have governments in the last two decades permitted — nay, fostered — a disparity between what’s financially demanded of us and what’s meted out?
We took great strides hastening to a debt crisis; we shouldn’t be taking baby steps to get ourselves out of it.
In light of the government’s foot-dragging on the issue, the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance (OUSA) recently demanded a tuition freeze. OUSA claims personal grants aren’t enough when university operating costs are “carried on the backs of students,” who, as OUSA’s president Spencer Nestico-Semianiw told the Toronto Star last week, presently contribute more to post-secondary institutions than any other group — including our provincial government.
Yet Nestico-Semianiw also told me over the phone that he supported Trudeau’s low-ball election promises over something more substantial. The federal government plays more of a “financial aid role”, he said, and ought to stay on that track, but OUSA certainly encourages the feds to push provinces in the direction of tuition fee limits.
When I asked why we shouldn’t demand the elimination of tuition fees altogether, Nestico-Semianiw argued that a feasibly implementable system requires both grants and subsidies. Grants direct the funding to students who need it most, he said, while freezing tuition helps disadvantaged individuals avoid “sticker shock” when contemplating enrolment. For OUSA, it’s the most practical and fairest solution, one with affordable steps that can be taken as early as next year.
I’m not an expert, but I’m not convinced by OUSA’s piecemeal approach. Other countries have figured out how to provide free tuition without depleting the public purse. Norway, which has a tax rate comparable to Canada, has done it; France, Germany, and Brazil have also figured it out. At any rate, sacrificing a valuable ideal for mere practicality seems to me a scary proposition, a compromise we shouldn’t be willing to make.
While Ontario has attempted to remedy that shortfall in recent years by providing additional grants directly to students who need them most, this mandate merely helps the poor after they’ve already taken the risk of enrolment, rather than preventing the problem in the first place. We took great strides hastening to a debt crisis; we shouldn’t be taking baby steps to get ourselves out of it.
Malone Mullin is a fifth-year student studying philosophy. Her column appears every three weeks.