As B.C.’s two political leadership races begin to heat up, a big issue for major student organizations has so far flown largely under the radar.
Nimmi Takkar, B.C. chair of the Canadian Federation of Students, said students are waiting to hear strong stances on postsecondary education from leadership candidates in both the Liberal and NDP parties.
“There’s lots of opportunity, I think, during this leadership race to invite youth to get really engaged and to bring them in,” Takkar said. “As students are drowning in debt in this province, I think that if leadership candidates came out with strong policy platforms on postsecondary education, students would go out there and show their support.”
As part of an ongoing campaign on student debt, CFS–B.C. has been calling for the elimination of interest on student loans, a reduction in tuition fees to 2001 levels, increased core funding for postsecondary institutions, and the reestablishment of a needs based provincial grant program. Takkar noted that the average debt load for a B.C. student with an undergraduate degree is $27,000.
The B.C. Liberal candidate who has been the most vocal on the issue so far is former advanced education minister Moira Stilwell.
“When I am premier, I will lower the interest rates on student loans from currently the highest in the country to not more than prime plus one percent,” she told the Georgia Straight.
Stilwell said she wouldn’t adjust tuition levels but would keep undergraduate-tuition increases to two percent per year.
She also announced plans to encourage more students to pursue training at the province’s regional colleges.
B.C. Liberal candidate Ed Mayne, who stepped down as mayor of Parksville to run for the leadership, said he would gather students, teachers, and administrators to determine the best ways to address tuition costs and student debt.
Former attorney general Mike de Jong told the Straight that although student income shouldn’t be a barrier to a postsecondary education, he wouldn’t consider reducing interest fees on student loans.
“Of all the impediments that may exist today, interest rates cannot be one of them,” de Jong told the Straight. “We are at historic low interest rates, so let’s focus in on the real issues”¦relating to access and affordability and debt load.”
As part of his campaign, de Jong has proposed providing opportunities through bilateral agreements for B.C. students to move abroad for education and work experience.
B.C. Liberal leadership candidates George Abbott, Christy Clark, and Kevin Falcon did not respond to interview requests by deadline.
Although the B.C. NDP race is just getting off the ground, with sixth declared candidate Adrian Dix joining the race this week, many of the candidates say they plan to release postsecondary-policy positions during the campaign.
Former B.C. Marijuana Party leader Dana Larsen told the Straight he would look at reducing student costs by introducing open-source books or using portable devices like Kindles to make textbooks available electronically.
“Textbooks are ridiculously expensive, and they print new editions every year with minor changes,” Larsen told the Straight. “I think that that’s something we could do that”¦would ease the financial burden on students drastically and would be very simple for the province to implement.”
Larsen also said tuition costs could be subsidized more through redirected government funding.
Opposition house leader Mike Farnworth said he’d like to see a provincial royal commission on education established to look at a range of issues, including student debt.
“I don’t think there’s anyone who’d deny, certainly in our party, that student debt is too high,” he told the Straight. “That’s why I want to bring together a very comprehensive approach, because I think that we need to have solutions that look at the whole.”
MLA John Horgan suggested forming a forum or commission to consult students, educators, and parents on postsecondary access and affordability.
“Once you’ve got your admission letter, it just goes downhill from there on the fiscal side, and those challenges need a comprehensive solution,” he told the Straight. “It may well be a tuition freeze or a tuition reduction, debt forgiveness of a portion of loans. Certainly, the interest issue is one that I think could easily be addressed with the borrowing power of the provincial government. There’s a host of options that are available.”
NDP leadership hopeful Nicholas Simons said policy options such as eliminating or reducing interest on student loans, forgiving a portion of loans, reducing tuition fees, and increasing the number of grants available would be “on the table for discussion” as options for improving access to postsecondary education.
“We’re really in a situation now where we’re deterring people from pursuing those educational goals, and we need to do whatever’s necessary to make postsecondary education more accessible,” he told the Straight.
MLA Harry Lali also said increases in tuition fees in recent years have kept many students from entering college and university, with rising costs of living having an impact on students who are underemployed or making minimum wage.
Adrian Dix was unable to meet an interview request by the Straight’s deadline, but a staff member said improving access to and quality of education will be a central issue in his campaign.