As political talking points go, there are few quite as classic as promising to help “the next generation”. By speaking to the future, all the while praising the achievements of the past, the promise to protect the next generation is a timeless turn of phrase in stump speeches and party platforms alike. Even the most recent Speech from the Throne had the provincial government promising to “provide quality education for the next generation.” Yet, as the recent unrest of young people everywhere from Tahrir Square to Wall Street suggests, the next generation is demanding much more than just words.
The world has experienced many harsh economic downturns since the Great Depression, but one of the defining factors of this financial crisis has been the particularly troubling effects it is having on students and recent university graduates. High levels of student debt paired with few opportunities for meaningful employment has led students, like the ones I represent at St. Thomas University, to experience a kind of double-edged financial strain that few other generations have experienced.
Starting with massive cuts to government funding for post-secondary education in the mid-1990s, we have seen average undergraduate tuition fees in Canada rise to over $5300/year. New Brunswick currently holds the dubious title of having the second-highest tuition fees in the country, with students paying out over $5800/year. These fees amount to a 185% increase since the early 1990s (an increase that vastly outpaces inflation), and have now left the average graduate from New Brunswick leaving school with over $37 000 in debt.
In addition to this high level of student debt, young people in Canada are also facing record high levels of unemployment, with the unemployment rate for Canadians ages 15 to 24 now sitting at 15.4%. What is even more troubling though is that, since these statistics only account for the number of unemployed workers still looking for a job, these numbers overlook people who have given up on finding work, as well as part-time employees that would rather be working full-time jobs. Taken together, estimates peg “real” unemployment for workers aged 15-24 at closer to 20%!
This high level of un(der)-employment means that there are not enough good jobs available to help pay off this large burden of student debt, a convergence of debt and joblessness that is devastating the next generation of workers. Even the United Nations has recently stated that this growing issue of youth unemployment was putting the world at risk of producing a “lost generation comprised of young people who have dropped out of the labour market, having lost all hope of being able to work for a decent living”.
Now, it is not to say that students in the past have not struggled with high levels of debt, nor is it to say that unemployment is any less devastating for someone without student loans, but it is the convergence of these two factors that has led this generation of students into a bind that few others have experienced.
It is a recognition of the financial and emotional strain our students and recent graduates are facing that has led the STU Students’ Union to launch a campaign entitled “Generation Debt”. Over the next few months, we will be pushing government to take a stand against the increased debt loads and tuition fees that are putting the pinch on students during these tough economic times. By increasing public investments to post-secondary education, most notably through the multi-year funding agreement being currently drafted between the provincial government and the universities, we can ensure that students and their families are not saddled with ever-increasing debt loads. Also, by reforming the student financial aid system to reduce inefficiencies in the way funds are being handled and delivered, we can strengthen our expenditure in up-front student financial aid without having to greatly increase spending.
Not only will these steps help to reduce the stress that young graduates feel when embarking out into our volatile job market, but, with studies showing that 70% of jobs being created in Canada will require some form of post-secondary education, we need to ensure that debt and tuition fees are not scaring young people away from getting a better education. Also, high levels of student debt have been shown to deter graduates from buying a house, saving for retirement, or taking on careers for the public good (e.g., pro bono law), so we owe it to ourselves to be producing graduates that are focusing more on giving back to our communities than on giving back to the credit card companies.
Educating New Brunswick’s next generation of workers should be a central part of any plan for economic recovery. Therefore, let’s give New Brunswick a fighting chance by not allowing our students to become a generation defined by debt and unemployment, but instead by committing to creating a generation of young people who have the education and opportunity needed to push this province forward.
Craig Mazerolle is the Vice President Education of the St. Thomas University Students’ Union.