Federal budget offers "pocket change" for postsecondary students, CFS chair says
Allocations for post-secondary education in the 2011 budget amount to “pocket change” for students, according to the head of the Canadian Federation of Students.
David Molenhuis, national chairperson of the CFS, said while the budget does offer some changes to federal student loan and grant programs, he described it as “fairly underwhelming for students and their families.”
“We were looking for much more in the way of solutions to some of the systematic problems effecting our post-secondary education system, namely chronic underfunding, rising tuition fees and student debt, and the need for more in the way of non-repayable financial assistance through the Canada student grants program,” he said.
Federal finance minister Jim Flaherty announced through the 2011 budget that new physicians and nurses practicing in under-served rural and remote areas could be eligible to have a portion of their student loans forgiven.
Starting in 2012-2013, family doctors in rural areas will be eligible for student loan forgiveness of up to $8,000 a year, to a maximum of $40,000. Nurses working in under-served areas will be eligible for up to $4,000 a year, to a maximum of $20,000.
Other budget allocations for post-secondary education and research include $34 million a year towards expanding eligibility for federal student loans and grants, up to $10 million a year in tax relief and Registered Education Saving Plan assistance to Canadians studying abroad, and $37 million to support three federal research granting councils.
Molenhuis called the student loan forgiveness policy for new doctors a “back-ended” measure for medicine students. He wants to see more comprehensive measures, including reduced tuition fees for students in medicine programs.
“Medicine programs are among the most expensive in the country, and that is one of the principle barriers to completing your studies in medicine, are the up-front costs,” he said, noting medicine students can accumulate in excess of $100,000 in debt.
Molenhuis said the federation had called for tuition fee reductions and increases in core funding for post-secondary education to match 1992 levels.
The student group participated in the drafting of an alternative budget with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. That budget wish list included expansion of the Canada Student Grants program.
Molenhuis said Canada is facing a “student debt crisis”. The country exceeded $15 billion in student debt in September 2010, a figure he said doesn’t include provincial loans, credit card or other forms of debt.
"We’re getting to a breaking point essentially,” said Molenhuis. “We’re threatening to bankrupt a generation with higher and higher tuition fees and more student debt accumulating as a result.”
The CFS chair said the organization’s proposal to help address student debt was to scrap $2.5 billion in annual spending on education-related tax credits in favour of an increase to Canada student grants.
The organization also wanted to see better funding for aboriginal students by eliminating a two percent funding cap on the Post-Secondary Student Support Program. Molenhuis noted since the fund was capped in 1996, both the aboriginal population and tuition fees have grown substantially.
Kyle Acierno, external relations officer for the Simon Fraser Students society, said the government has "taken a step in the right direction" with the budget by looking at the problems that post-secondary students are facing.
"We're happy that they're looking at increasing the grant program," he said.
Acierno said B.C. students face the highest average debt load in the country, at $27,000 after an undergraduate degree.
Acierno said the student loan forgiveness measure is a good idea, but said universities should have a chance to determine the most underfunded areas.
"Instead of just looking at maths and sciences or doctors, they should be passing the money off to the universities themselves and letting them decide how to best disperse the funding," he said.