Little hope left for starving students

ST. CATHARINES, Ont. (CUP) – As student unemployment rates soar, university students are being forced into more debt to pay for the schooling they will inevitably need. "Students are stuck between a rock and a hard place," says Katharine Giroux-Bougard, the national chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS). "With record high tuition fees and mortgage-sized debt loads, students are deeply concerned about their future," says Giroux-Bougard.

She says that students carry a debt load of an average of $25,000 for a four-year undergraduate degree.

Many Canadian university students are concerned, as costs rose for incoming students at many schools this year. At Brock University, the average tuition costs are now $5,000 for a regular eight-month term. For total fees, Brock is rounding out at about $5,700 for the full time eight-month undergraduate year, which puts the university at the higher end of the Canadian scale. "During these hard times, students and their families are looking to the government for leadership," says Giroux-Bougard. "Canada's long-term financial health requires a national strategy for post-secondary education."

The CFS wants to see the federal government introduce a Post-Secondary Education Act, mirroring the Canada Health Act, to govern tuition fees and the funding given to the provinces for colleges and universities. "This legislation should increase accountability and help establish long-term post-secondary education objectives including reducing tuition fees and increasing accessibility," says Giroux-Bougard. Giroux-Bougard doesn’t suggest that the government subsidize schooling as some European countries have, but rather more regulation for the schools and what they do with the money that they are provided with.

The CFS website states that "the hard-fought freezes and reductions that have been won in some provinces are under attack by those who would have students shoulder more of the funding burden".

British Columbia deregulated tuition fees when the Gordon Campbell government stepped in 2002, which has resulted in hikes of up to 100 per cent. Both Ontario and Nova Scotia's tuition deregulation also resulted in hikes.

Rob Lanteigne, Brock University Student Union vice-president of university affairs, explains that the government could help students carry the financial burdens of post-secondary education in more ways than just removing debt. "We would like the government to provide greater assistance to help students by increasing the amount of aid available," he says "This could take many forms, from increased targeted grants, to one-time assistance measures, increasing loan maximums and more."

In addition to rising tuition fees, according to a recent poll by Stats Canada, university students experienced their highest unemployment rate since 1977, at 16.4 per cent. "With such a dismal summer job market, students have not earned enough money to pay their bills, much less afford the rising costs of education," says Lanteigne. Although there are places for students to access funds, the stresses involved can be quite tenuous as it forces students to scrimp for every penny. One of these sources is Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP), which was utilized by 226,476 students last year.

According to Lanteigne, the program assumes that every student will be able to contribute $2,710 of their summer earnings towards their in-school expenses. "It does so whether or not a student actually had a job at all, or whether the job also incurred related expenses," he says. OSAP then subtracts this amount of assumed contribution from a student's funding estimate. Lanteigne believes "it's time for the government to take responsibility and provide greater assistance to help students endure the economic downturn". One of Lanteigne's new student-aimed initiatives is lobbying to have OSAP remove "the required summer income contribution, [and by doing so] students would see their loan award increased by $2,710 if they were not employed over the summer".

// Cody Boyko
The Brock Press (Brock University)

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