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$13 Billion and Counting

by Archives January 27, 2009

Canadians who have borrowed money from the federal government to continue their studies at the post-secondary level now owe over $13 billion according to the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS).
The country’s largest student lobby group disclosed the number last Wednesday, less than one week before the federal government released the 2009 budget.
“We didn’t time it,” said government relations coordinator for CFS Ian Boyko. “But it’s handy, with the budget coming out, to help draw attention to it.”
The amount of debt, which is increasing by $1.2 million per day according to CFS, is owed to the Canada Student Loan Program, a federal program that lends money to students with a demonstrated financial need.
The national student debt is actually much higher than what CFS announced, according to Concordia Student Union VP external Colin Goldfinch. “This is just money owed to the Canadian Student Loans Program,” he said. “It doesn’t even take into account provincial loans or personal debt.”
Even though Quebec has its own loan programs for Quebec residents, student advocates say those studying in the province should still be wary.
“Premier Jean Charest wants to model Quebec universities after those in other provinces,” Boyko said, referring to tuition increases that have been taking place across the country over the past several years.
Undergraduate tuition fees for Canadian full-time students increased 3.6 per cent year-over-year from the 2007-2008 school year according to Statistics Canada.
Tuition fees didn’t change in Saskatchewan and Newfoundland and Labrador; the highest fees are still found in Nova Scotia, despite a 2.9 per cent decrease.
According to Statistics Canada, the national average increase for 2008-2009 is 4.4 per cent over the amount paid in 1998-1999. In contrast, inflation increased at an average annual rate of 2.3 per cent.
Quebec represented the province with the most significant change in 2008-2009. Tuition fees here increased 5.4 per cent over the last academic year.
“We should take this as a warning sign,” Goldfinch said. “We want to keep our tuition low.” Goldfinch said current low tuition rates encourage more Québécois to pursue post-secondary education in the province. “It’s beneficial to our economy,” he said.
Student lobby groups are looking for the federal government to take action to help curb the increasing debt, which has had a negative impact on enrolment and completion rates.
“The government needs to take steps,” said Zach Churchill, national director for the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA), the nation’s second-largest student lobby group. “They can start by lowering the interest rates on loans,” he said. “It would make the system more fair.”
One of the changes CFS and CASA would both like to see is increased payments from the feds to the provinces. This, they say, would fill any funding gaps and prevent any perceived need to increase tuition fees.
They are also calling on the government to increase grants that are based on financial needs. Churchill said people living in rural and northern areas, aboriginals, children from low-income families and students with disabilities are the groups who typically don’t pursue post-secondary education. “We can’t afford to have this happen any more,” he said. “We don’t want to have people miss out on a post-secondary education for financial reasons.”
Both CFS and CASA said they would like to make post-secondary education available to as many Canadians as possible.
“The best investment this government can make is an investment into post-secondary education,” Boyko said. “An educated and debt-free workforce is a strong workforce.”

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