By Shamus Reid
“While we will protect critical health and education services, we will not throw up our hands, throw in the towel and borrow our way into oblivion.”
— B.C. government throne speech, August 25
Reading the B.C. government’s budget update released on September 1, one is tempted to finish that sentence from the throne speech with “we will simply force B.C.’s average-income families to borrow into oblivion”. Medical Services Plan hikes, the HST, and inflationary tuition-fee increases—these policies are flat taxes that will hurt average income earners the most.
Before releasing the budget update, Finance Minister Colin Hansen quipped to the media that this would be one of the best budgets B.C. has ever seen. After budget day, British Columbians had their say on the matter, with an Ipsos Reid poll finding that 68 percent opposed the revised budget. It’s clear why. British Columbians were looking for a bold vision, while this budget focused on short-sighted deficit slashing at the expense of many of the social programs and policies that will actually strengthen B.C. in the years to come.
One of those social programs is postsecondary education. Studies have shown the return on public investment in postsecondary education can range from 4:1 to 13:1. The reasons are well-documented: the more educated one is, the less one needs to access services like health care and income assistance, and the more likely one is to have a higher-level of income and pay more into the tax base. Likewise, the more educated and well-trained British Columbia is as a whole, the more productive our workforce and strong our economy will be.
On the flip side, the more tuition fees rise, the more student debt piles up, the more of a gamble education becomes. A full 25 percent of university graduates make less after graduation than the average high-school-only graduate. In other words, when education costs are high, one in four graduates borrows tens of thousands of dollars in debt for a negative benefit.
Despite the obvious benefits of enhancing access to postsecondary education, students will confront greater financial struggle this year, as the policies in the September budget update are combined with the worst student-employment market on record. Statistics Canada numbers pegged student unemployment for July and August at the highest rates ever. For those who were lucky enough to get full-time work throughout this summer, they weren’t much better off; B.C.’s minimum wage is now the lowest in Canada.
To make matters worse, the budget update pressed ahead with a 14.5 percent ($17 million) cut to student aid. Curiously, while Minister Hansen couldn’t find $17 million for student aid, he found $165 million extra for new Olympic cost overruns. B.C. ranked last—a full 60 percent below the national average—in the provision of non-repayable student financial aid before cutting funding by 14.5 percent.
Before this student-aid cut, average public student debt in B.C. upon graduation had climbed by nearly 50 percent since 2001 to $27,000 (before the accrual of interest). Essentially, getting an education in B.C. has become a debt sentence. Yet, while students are expected to pay more yet again this September, with fewer financial resources, the budget update froze public funding to universities and colleges.
Average families in British Columbia can either no longer afford a postsecondary education, or are forced to take on massive debt to pay for it. Meanwhile, institutions are starved for the necessary funding to offer truly dynamic and high-quality education. If the B.C. government is serious about emerging from the recession stronger than ever, it must take a sober second look at the past eight years of experiments with privatizing postsecondary education. It’s time for a vision to make postsecondary education universally accessible and affordable for all who want to contribute to a stronger British Columbia.
Shamus Reid is the chair of the Canadian Federation of Students-British Columbia and a University of Victoria student.