Canadian students crushed by debt

Is it time to follow the example of Chile and Quebec and protest against high tuition and student debt?  

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One of the Everest College sites in Ontario

Instantly, over 2,000 students lost their educational credits and most of their tuition fees. 

What news stories did not reveal was that Everest Colleges is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Corinthian Colleges Inc., a very large US company in the education business.

Corinthian’s unsavoury behaviour – misleading students from vulnerable low-income groups, encouraging heavy loan indebtedness, and creating difficulty around credit transfers to and from other institutions – had led to a decade-long battle with the law, now culminating in a major student legal action.

Here's a question. Should young people, who are beginning the training for their working lives, be victims of the vagaries of unscrupulous, for-profit corporations?

Canada had its own student strikes in Québec in 2012. Miscontrued by many as a protest against a fee hike, the pivotal issue was in fact student debt.

Québec strike garnered wide social support

In Québec, student fees average a bit less than half what they are in the rest of Canada – $2500 vs $5700.

The student debt in Québec is also half: $13,000 vs $27,000. Students, and a large proportion of the Québecois population in general, were protesting against falling into the debt trap prevalent elsewhere in the country, created by sharply reduced federal transfer payments.

As Montréal writer Andrew Gavin Marshall noted, “striking students in Quebec are setting an example for youth across the continent.”

Given the vicissitudes of Canadian politics, where Québec governments have argued for being independent from the rest of the country, this struggle has not yet caught on from coast to coast. But it should.

Canadian college and university education is still dominated by a stunning lack of support at the federal and most provincial levels, and a corresponding blight of debilitating student indebtedness.

College and university administrators, wary of biting the government hand that feeds them, have tried to adapt in their own way, by taking on “contract academic staff” – hired teachers paid at a markedly lower rate than regular professors (e.g. about $30,000 vs $125,000), given no benefits (vs. a pension, sabbaticals, money for travel and research), and made to reapply for a job every year (vs. multi-year or permanent jobs).

But this move has done little to lighten the debt load that students bear, because most Canadian governments continue to view education, from top to bottom, as a for-profit, free-enterprise endeavour.

This free enterprise frolic starts earlier. Private schools for Grades K-12, attended by just over 5 per cent of Canadian children, flourish everywhere, with fees of up to $60,000 per year.

Private training colleges abound, and there are 18 private universities, offering programs for fees triple or quadruple the fees in public institutions. 

While average university fees outside Québec and Newfoundland (both provinces that have bucked the trend – the latter, brilliantly, with grants instead of loans ) are about $5700, fees at a private university like BC’s Trinity Western University are $22,260.

In a recent, peculiarly retrograde move, the BC government has just decided that a student lacking Grade 12 who wants to go back to school in order to get higher training will be charged for the privilege to do so.

It has also decided that new immigrants to Canada who hope to improve their command of English will now also have to pay for that privilege as well. 

In Chile, students went on strike, and now they have an educational system that treats them like valued citizens, not political cannon fodder. In Québec, students went on strike, and the government that wanted to raise their fees by 75 per cent was voted out, and its replacement has dropped the fee increase.

Newfoundland now has one of the most supportive programs of financial aid for students in the country, in large measure because student advocacy is unusually strong in that province. 

I think students should strike, and stay out on strike and do all sorts of imaginative public relations stunts (the Chileans did a “kiss-in” – that sounds pretty innocuous) until either the government changes its treatment of Canada’s future generations, or a new government comes in that will. And Canadians who are not students should support them in their efforts.

If they go down, we all go down.

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