Financial Crisis: A series about how the high cost of higher education could affect your career as well as your bank account.
Students versus government.
It’s a classic battle of the ages, more enduring and circuitous than even the ugliest Twitter war. And nine times out of 10, you can bet that tuition – or rather, too much of it – will be the point of contention.
“Students have identified the high up-front cost of post-secondary education as the biggest barrier to accessing college and university programs.”
—David Molenhuis, national chairperson, Canadian Federation of Students
It’s easy to figure out who’s on which side, but here’s the big question: why do students deserve lower tuition?
For millions of Canadian students faced with the prospect of 20 or more years of student debt ahead of them after graduation, the idea is simple: education is a right, not a privilege.
Gen Y is entitled to an education
“Education Is A Right (EIAR) is the manifestation of the collective desire of students across Canada to see an affordable and high-quality system of public post-secondary education everywhere,” says David Molenhuis, national chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS).
This year, the student-led initiative is travelling to colleges and universities all across Canada.
“Contending with student debt can be an isolating experience, so we’ve tried to ensure that students feel a sense of community with other students and know that they’re not alone,” Molenhuis says.
The campaign’s mission statement: challenge the government to protect the right of every Canadian citizen to an accessible post-secondary education.
Accessibility vs. affordability
Accessibility gives financially-wanting students the capacity to meet the expenses of a post-secondary education during their time in school, ideally through “free money” such as non-repayable grants and government subsidies.
Affordability refers to the government’s provision of non-refundable education tax credits to all post-secondary graduates, which aims to ease their transition into the workforce by offering a “discount” on their income taxes.
Molenhuis says accessibility, not affordability, is the key to solving the student debt crisis. “The current system of tax credits and saving schemes fails to improve access to post-secondary education because it provides these tax credits to Canadians regardless of financial need.”
To tax or to grant
In Alberta, disagreements over whether or not to convert education tax credits to up-front grants are causing a stir among student groups with contrasting opinions.
The Student Association of Mount Royal University (SAMRU) and the Alberta Students’ Executive Council (ASEC) are the most vocal about their opposition to a document submitted by the Council of Alberta University Students (CAUS) to the provincial government. In it, the CAUS proposed that the $110 million budget for educational tax credits be refocused into non-repayable grants.
In a Mount Royal University Reflector interview, Meghan Melnyk, vice-president external of SAMRU, says that tax credits have proven to be beneficial to students who’ve had difficulty qualifying for grants. Because there are “a lot of hoops you have to jump through” to obtain grants, tax credits offer the assurance that once students graduate, they (and anyone who helped pay for their education, such as their parents) will be given some financial leeway.
A student’s provincial tax credit is worth about $1,000 per year.
Giving out chances
For CAUS and the Alliance of Nova Scotia Student Associations (ANSSA), now is better than later.
“Tax credits may be nice when you’re filling out your return in March, but they do little to pay your tuition when you need it in September,” writes Duncan Wojtaszek, executive director of the CAUS, in the council’s official blog. “We believe that few students, if any, come to university just because they receive a tax credit. But what we do know is that many Albertans never go to post-secondary education because of financial reasons.”
Molenhuis agrees: “Tax credits can only be accessed at the end of a study period. We’ve been vocal supporters of grants because, when made available to students at the beginning of the year, they can help students pay for their costs and accumulate less debt.”
For proponents of accessibility, up-front grants are the answer to raising participation rates and lowering student debt. This year, the Canada Student Loans Program (CSLP) will lend out approximately $2.1 billion to students. Molenhuis says that reallocating the estimated $2.5 billion the federal government plans to spend for tax credits to the Canada Student Grants Program (CSGP) will allow the government to transform each dollar of potential student debt into a non-repayable grant.
“Students have repeatedly identified the high up-front cost of post-secondary education as the biggest barrier to accessing college and university programs. Increasing the amount allocated to the CSGP will ensure that more students can benefit from this assistance,” he notes.
However, Molenhuis concedes that grants aren’t easy to obtain, which is why the campaign’s accessibility advocacy goes hand in hand with the call for reduced tuition.
The deficiencies of Canada’s post-secondary financial aid system have been around since government funding cuts were made during the mid-90s, and tthey’ve yet to be restored, leaving colleges and universities in Canada consistently underfunded. Naturally, these cuts are being passed on to students in the form of higher tuition.
Despite the fact that 90% of currently enrolled students are paying higher tuition than they did last year, Molenhuis says that there still isn’t enough money being dedicated to staff and school operations. Without additional support from the government, it will be hard to recruit top-notch faculty and improve research infrastructure, which will be a drastic blow to the quality of Canada’s schools.
“The only way to ensure high quality programs with well-supported faculty members is predictable and sustained public funding. Dedicated post-secondary education transfers from the federal government mean that provincial governments and institutions will have reliable sources of funding to provide high quality programmes and improve access for students across the country,” he stresses.