Reflecting on the federal election I cannot help but wonder how different the outcome on October 19th may be had the mainstream media spent fewer column inches on polls and process pieces, and more on big policy ideas like access to post-secondary education.
Access to post-secondary education is an issue of growing national concern—but you wouldn’t know it by following the general election campaigns. The challenge of well-funded post-secondary education goes to the heart of the economic crisis and affects all Canadians.
The more that young people are saddled with student debt, the harder it is to start families, purchase homes, and spend on the Canadian economy generally. Once lucrative careers, such as law, have lost their lustre as tuition fees skyrocket and job prospects diminish. Students are increasingly driven to unpaid internships that rarely lead to full-time employment. At the same time, our reliance on our families and community services extends later into our adult lives.
Until a couple weeks ago not one of the major political parties had put forward a comprehensive policy on post-secondary education. This is despite the fact that Canadian universities are struggling to manage their budgets and remain competitive, as student debt levels mount. The NDP is proposing a $250 million increase in student grants, a proposal that has gotten zero airplay.
More can and needs to be done.
The federal government has a key role to play in this arena. Political parties can step up by pledging to eliminate tuition and education tax credits and use those funds to properly finance public post-secondary education.
The 2015 election narrative has been dominated by competing announcements of boutique tax credits. But tax credits are no substitute for coordinated government investment. They are a form of politicking by those not bold enough to tackle the challenges the country faces.
The crisis of post-secondary education shows stark evidence of the shortcomings of tax credit regimes. While federal transfers to provinces for post-secondary education declined by more than 50 per cent in the last ten years, the government’s tax expenditure for individual students grew from $566 million in 1996 to more than $2.8 billion today.
A recent Queen’s University study found that effects of these tax credits are neutral, at best, and at worst, regressive. Most students do not know these benefits exist. When they do, the delayed benefit is not enough to incentivize low-income students to enroll in postsecondary education, leaving the rewards to more affluent Canadians.
Tuition and education tax credits benefit those who can already pay and have sufficiently taxable income, not those for whom hefty fees and private loans are out of reach. The cost of being a student is astronomical: a four-year university education is estimated to set students back $80,000 (residence fees accounting for about $31,000 of that). The promise of future tax credits does not alleviate this burden when tuition invoices roll around.
The federal government must put funds directly in the hands of postsecondary institutions and low-income students. Up-front grants would make postsecondary education more predictable, navigable, and fair.
Converting tax credit expenditures into grants over loans would make huge advances in alleviating student debt. The federal government already spends billions on post-secondary tax credits. By contrast, the needs-based Canada Student Loan Program spent $2.46 billion in 2013-2014 while falling far short of the demand. Student loans no longer cover the cost of tuition which continues to rise while the loans have been capped since 2005. Neither do they cover growing living expenses, disproportionately impacting those who leave rural and small towns to attend university. Default rates rise in the meantime.
What is needed is a coordinated effort on the part of the federal government and the provinces. Canada remains the only OECD country without a national department of education. The provincial disparity in post-secondary education costs has widened dramatically—while Newfoundland announced the abolishment of student loans in favour of grants, students in Ontario pay the highest fees in the country averaging $8,691 per year.
The federal government plays a significant role in funding post-secondary education and has an obligation to ensure that funding is effective. Students are ensuring that post-secondary education is an election issue, and those vying to form government must take up the issue responsibly.
Amy Kishek is an articling student and a co-founder of A2J.