Political Perspectives is produced by the students and faculty of Carleton University's School of Journalism and Communication, Canada's oldest journalism school.


No talk about student issues

Posted by cwaddell under Election 2008, Election 2008 Student articles

Dan Robson

In Canada, Donnie Northrup is well below average.

Currently completing a bachelor of science degree at Carleton University, the 20-year-old plans to pursue a graduate degree in educational studies before eventually moving on to law school. 

But Northrup, a dean’s list student, is $12,000 in debt—which puts him well below the national average of $25,000.

So in the shadow of rapidly rising post-secondary education costs, Northrup is ostensibly fortunate.
“I have a lot of friends who are going to graduate from their undergrad with $20,000 to $30,000 in debt,” he said. “They’re going to start their working lives already so much in debt that they’re never going to be able to accumulate wealth within a reasonable amount of time.” 

With the federal election around the corner, the cost of post-secondary education is weighing heavily on the minds of many like Northup. 

“Students want themselves and other students to have access to education and to complete that education without accruing an abhorrent amount of debt,” said Zach Churchill, national director of the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations.

Instead of being able to move seamlessly into the exciting adult world of mortgages and credit card debt, many students are beginning the rat race thousands of dollars behind the start line.

But Churchill says debate about student issues has been relatively quiet on the campaign front so far—the Greens and Liberals have revealed their education platforms, while the NDP and the Tories have waited to unveil theirs.

The Greens set lofty targets with their promise to chop all student debt in half. And the Liberals set the bar even higher by promising the largest investment to student financial aid in recent history—a $1.2 billion four-year plan to provide a plethora of needs-based bursaries and access grants, with lower interest rates and extended grace periods for student loan repayments. 

But even these generous policy plans are failing to address the bottom line issue in post-secondary funding, says Catherine Giroux-Bougard, manager of communications for the Canadian Federation of Students.

“So far there has been there no commitment to direct transfer payment,” she lamented, echoing a perspective Churchill also shares.

Currently, funds earmarked for post-secondary education are passed from the federal government to the provinces without a guarantee that they will actually be used for what they were intended, explains Giroux-Bougard. These payments are grouped in with funding for other social programs, so the amount dedicated to post-secondary schools becomes more of a suggestion than a requirement or a reality. 

But a debate about dedicated transfer payments  promises to surface soon.

When Jack Layton’s New Democrats release their education plan this week accountable transfers will be central to their plan, said NDP education critic Denise Savoie during a phone interview from her B.C riding.

“We want to clearly establish federal responsibility and lock in federal funds for Canada’s college and university system,” she said, adding that cutting the student debt interest rates—currently among the highest in the G-8—will also be central to the NDP plan.

But Canadian college and university students have heard these promises before.

“In the 2006 election the Conservative platform promised a dedicated transfer payment, but they have yet to implement anything during their time in government,” said Giroux-Bougard, adding that the Tories had, at least, increased funding in their 2008 budget and laid a new foundation for grants to historically marginalized groups, like First-Nation communities and new immigrants. 

Without a direct transfer guarantee, the provinces are not held to account for post-secondary spending. And without that accountability many young people are not able to access the education they deserve, Churchill says.

And the domino effect promises to have a dire impact on the national economy as well, Churchill warns. 

“Over 70 per cent of the jobs that we’re creating right now require a post secondary credential, however currently Canada is only educating about 40 per cent of student aged population,” he says, noting that inaccessible post-secondary education is the main reason for many people not to continue their education.  

So, it seems, the implications of the dedicated transfer payments issue reach beyond the young adult demographic.

Compared to other G-8 nations, experts say Canada is hovering near the middle of the pack when it comes to dedicated financial resources for colleges and universities. 

The United States gives $29,000 in funding per student, compared to the $21,000 our government provides, says Lyse Huot, communication director of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC).

But agreeing that more money is needed isn’t really the challenge for the parties vying for student votes. 

Grandiose promises for more money are a dime a dozen for students like Northrup, but without a guarantee for provincial accountability those promises are likely irrelevant, he says.

In the mean time, the price of Northup’s educational dreams continues to rise.

“I could be looking at going into another twenty-grand of debt,” says Northrup, reflecting on the cost of his higher education. 

And unless something changes, with three degrees, the below-average Northrup may soon fit in with the indebted norm. 

Dan Robson is a student in the Master of Journalism program at the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University.