By Veronica Harrison
This summer, when most British Columbians were trying to wrap their heads around the new harmonized sales tax, many B.C. students were having their pockets picked.
Although the program cutting spree was never officially announced, the Ministry of Advanced Education circulated an internal memo about six programs that will cease to exist in the coming year:
”¢ Permanent Disability Benefits Program (eliminated)
”¢ Debt Reduction in Repayment (eliminated)
”¢ Loan Reduction for Residential Care Aide and Home Support Workers Programs (eliminated)
”¢ Health Care Bursary (eliminated)
”¢ Early Childhood Educator Loan Assistance Program (under review)
”¢ Premier’s Excellence Awards (eliminated)
These six programs amount to 14 percent of the government’s total budget for student debt reduction measures. The cuts are a worrisome reminder of Premier Gordon Campbell’s willingness to cut assistance to students when the going gets tough. Many postsecondary students and graduates still remember the devastating elimination of the grants program in B.C. during double-digit tuition-fee increases, leading directly to a 50 percent increase in student debt.
While not as deep as the grants cuts in 2004, the July 2009 cuts target primarily women and student-loan borrowers with disabilities.
More bad news followed in August when Statistics Canada reported that summer unemployment for students across Canada was at an all-time high.
The unemployment rate for students climbed to 21 percent, meaning 152,000 fewer students found work this summer compared to one year ago.
These are clearly tough times for students, with average student debt reaching over $27,000 upon graduation. The few provincial resources available to students to offset these costs appear to be in the premier’s crosshairs, and Stephen Harper is asleep at the switch of the federal summer-jobs program during the worst recession since the 1930s.
Spending cuts in the middle of a recession will have high economic and social costs, and the cuts to student aid are particularly short-sighted. Access to postsecondary education plays an important role in economic recovery. Training skilled workers, community professionals, and innovative researchers are all direct and positive economic drivers.
One in every two students in B.C. relies on public assistance, and with every tuition-fee increase and every cut to student aid, the premier is creating a ticking time bomb. It should come as no surprise that an Ipsos Reid poll this month found that approximately half of students across Canada expect to run out of resources by the end of the year.
Given that B.C. has the lowest percentage of non-repayable student aid in the country, one can expect that the problem will be much worse for B.C. students.
The B.C. Liberals are poised to introduced a revised budget on September 1. Although they have missed many key opportunities to protect British Columbians from the economic downturn, it is not too late to curb student debt and reduce tuition fees.
Today’s postsecondary students are tomorrow’s average income earners. They deserve lower tuition fees and lower student debt today to protect B.C. from the next “unanticipated” economic collapse.
Veronica Harrison is the chair of the University of Victoria Students’ Society.