Political will needed for accessible post-secondary education

Written by Craig Mazerolle, VP Education of St. Thomas University Students’ Union on August 16, 2011

rally-ed-9With the beginning of the school year just around the corner, students, like myself, will soon be flooding back to universities across the province. This is always an exciting time of year for New Brunswick communities and students, but this year, the excitement is being undercut by a growing list of financial concerns.

There has been a lot of talk lately about the reintroduction of the parental contribution to the calculation of student loans in New Brunswick, a rule that assumes families are able to chip in a certain amount of money to help cover their children’s education. This sum is mainly based on total parental income, and though some have stated that all families have an obligation to help cover their children’s expenses, the elimination of the rule allowed students from families who were unable to fulfill this commitment to have full access to the province’s student financial aid system.

Whether it be a tense relationship between the parents and the student, or a family that, while financially sound on paper, has fallen on hard times, the elimination of the rule meant that government did not have to look into these deeply personal situations. By reinstating the rule, students with families either unable or unwilling to help pay for school are again falling through the cracks of our student financial aid system. But, while this change has certainly been a step backwards by the provincial government, it is only a part of the problem.

With an end to the tuition freeze, a delay in the increase of the minimum wage, and the summer unemployment rate among students nearing 20%, the challenges facing students and their families this year have never been greater. It is easy to picture the stereotypical university student as someone going to school on “mommy and daddy’s dime”, but the reality is that the vast majority of students are finding it harder and harder to afford a university education.

Average undergraduate tuition fees in New Brunswick are now over $5700 (making them the second highest in the country), and these fees have been steadily increasing since the early 1990s at a rate that greatly outpaces inflation. These increases mean that the burden of paying for a post-secondary education in New Brunswick is being placed more and more on the backs of students and their families in the form of loans and maxed-out credit cards. In fact, a recent study from the Maritime Provinces Higher Education Commission found that the average graduate from an Atlantic university finishes their degree with over $37 000 in debt!

Put all of these factors against the backdrop of one of the worst job markets in recent history, and it is of little wonder why studies out of Britain are showing more and more university students suffering from depression and anxiety, and why increasing numbers of qualified high school graduates are saying they cannot afford to further their education. These rising costs—and the immense debt load that goes with them—are slowly turning the university from the great social equalizer it has been for generations, into a fairly exclusive endeavour, and, by extension, is greatly hampering the province’s attempts at economic recovery.

Over 70% of new jobs being created in Canada will require some form of post-secondary education, so without giving students the help they need to get through school without a mountain of debt, we will not have the highly-skilled workforce needed to push this province forward. Furthermore, with studies showing high levels of debt deterring students from buying a house, saving for retirement, or taking on careers for the public good (e.g., pro bono law), we are left with graduates focusing more on paying down their debt than on giving back to their communities.  

The solutions are simple, but the political will is lacking. Beyond removing the parental contribution from New Brunswick student loans, we know that we need to properly fund our universities so that the burden of paying for an education does not fall solely on students and their families. We know that tuition fees need to be reduced to ensure greater access. We know that we need a student financial aid system that focuses on grants and bursaries, not more and more loans. We know what solutions are needed to improve post-secondary education in New Brunswick, but we need to make our politicians act.

While students and professors have long advocated for these changes, there is nothing more powerful than having parents, grandparents, friends, and concerned citizens adding their voices to these efforts. By writing letters to the Editor, calling our elected representatives, and starting conversations about the importance of post-secondary education at dinner tables across the province, we can begin to turn the tide on education in this province.

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