Lucia Orser: Postsecondary education will be key B.C. election issue in 2013

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As we head into a provincial election in May 2013, students across the province are looking back at a lost decade for the postsecondary education (PSE) system in British Columbia. In this time we’ve seen tuition more than double, major funding cuts, a needs-based grants program scrapped, and interest rates on student loans become the highest in the country.

Students in B.C. now graduate with an average $27,000 in debt. This figure comes from a 2009 study by the now-disbanded Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation. As there is a major gap on data collection around student debt, we can only assume that this number has gone up in the past three years.

B.C. has gone from one of the most accessible PSE systems in the country to one of the most mediocre or the worst—depending on what indicators you look at. This year, the University of Victoria is facing a four percent cut in funding, which means another year where students will pay more for less. B.C. has fallen behind other provinces which understand the economic advantages of giving people at the lowest socio-economic level access to a postsecondary education. This is proven to raise people out of poverty and reduces the likelihood that they will access social services and the health-care system, and that they will contribute more through taxes.

When leaders of the major provincial political parties pitch their case to British Columbians next May, they need to put funding for PSE at the top of their agendas if they are serious about economic growth and job creation. The B.C. Liberal record on PSE is not rosy: tuition-fee deregulation, a scrapped grants program, the highest interest rates on student loans in the country, and an emphasis on capital projects at institutions rather than students. The B.C. Liberals need to take a hard look at their current policies and take a cue from other conservative governments that have increased funding (Alberta), eliminated interest on student loans (Newfoundland and Labrador), and instituted a needs-based grants program (Harper government).

The NDP track record for PSE in the 1990s wasn’t great either; it instituted tuition freezes but didn’t pony up the cash necessary to close the funding gap that ensued. This time, the NDP is off to a good start with its promise to bring back a $100-million needs-based grants program but it needs to commit to eliminating interest rates on student loans. As for the Greens and Conservatives, they are largely silent on the issue and need to step up. As with the Liberals, the Conservatives also need to take cues from their right-leaning counterparts across the country who have strong policies on PSE.

The Where’s the Funding? campaign, which represents over 180,000 B.C. students, includes students with a broad range of political views—but we all agree on the key points of needs-based grants, interest rates on student loans, and core funding. Together these initiatives address inequality and allow low-income students who can’t get their foot in the door access to a university or college education. Students are fed up with being a bankrupted generation and will be mobilizing over the next seven months to make PSE the key election issue. PSE is the key driver for the future growth and prosperity of B.C., and students rightly see this as being a nonpartisan issue. Each party is equally positioned to commit to making B.C. have the highest quality, most accessible PSE system in Canada. With that in mind, student organizers will be mobilizing their peers to vote education in May 2013.

Lucia Heffelfinger Orser is the director of external relations for the University of Victoria Students’ Society.

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