Federal and provincial government decisions are forcing students to take on more education-related debt than any previous generation, while middle class earnings have largely stagnated in the past twenty years.
Skyrocketing tuition fees and the prevalence of loan-based financial assistance have pushed student debt to historic levels. This past year, almost 425,000 students were forced to borrow in order to finance their education. The aggregate of loans disbursed by the Canada Student Loans Program, less the aggregate of loan repayments received is resulting in student debt increasing by $1 million per day.
A Generation in Debt
In September 2010, the total amount of student loans owed to the government reached $15 billion, the legislated ceiling set by the Canada Student Financial Assistance Act. This figure only accounts for a portion of total student debt; it does not include provincial and personal loans, lines of credit, and education-related credit card debt. In response, the government altered the definition of “student loan” to exclude over $1.5 billion in federal student loan debt. Even with this new definition, the federal student loan debt surpassed the $15 billion limit. In response, the federal government amended the Canada Student Financial Assistance Act again in order to increase the limit to $19 billion while, at the same time, dramatically reducing parliamentary oversight of the program.
For more than a decade, students studying in Ontario and the Maritimes have had the highest average debt loads, averaging more than $28,000.
In other jurisdictions, pressure from students and their families has prevented student debt from rising to the levels suffered by students in the Maritimes. A massive student mobilisation in Québec in 2005 forced Jean Charest’s Liberal government to reverse $103 million in cuts to a bursary program directed at students most in need, then in 2013 massive student mobilisation against increases in tuition fees contributed to the defeat of the Charest Government in the 2012 provincial elections. Collective action has afforded Québec both the lowest tuition fees and lowest levels of student debt of any province at just over $13,000.
Students in Newfoundland and Labrador have been successful in lobbying consecutive governments to freeze and reduce tuition fees since 1999. In 2007 the provincial government implemented an up-front needs-based grant program. As a result, student debt in Newfoundland and Labrador has decreased significantly. For graduates of the one-year programs at the College of the North Atlantic, student debt fell by five percent in one year alone. Since introducing the grants program, in 2011 the government has also eliminated the interest on student loans, giving a break to those who accrued debt.