COLUMN: We need a long-term plan on post-secondary

From the Hill Column by Richard Cannings

A couple of weeks ago, students returned to colleges and universities across Canada after a long summer break. They have been working hard for months to earn enough to pay for their education, but these days those summer wages don’t go very far. Housing costs have been skyrocketing across the country in recent years, especially in urban centres where most post-secondary institutions are located. The other cost that has been rising relentlessly for the past 20 years is tuition.

Government funding for post-secondary education has been steadily declining, dropping from 54 per cent to 49 per cent in the last decade alone. Universities and colleges have made up some of the difference through donations, asset sales and commercial investments, but most of the drop in government funding has been made up by rising tuition fees charged to students.

Statistics Canada recently reported that tuition fees for undergraduate programs were up 3.1 per cent this year over last, to an average of $6,571. This increase is even higher than it was last year, when tuition went up by an average 2.8 per cent, a combined increase of almost $400 over the past two years.

The Liberal government pledged to bring real change to reverse the affordability crisis in higher education. Last year’s increase in grants for low income students from $2000 to $3000 gave those who qualify a temporary reprieve from rising costs, but the tuition increases alone have eaten up almost half this amount. Grants for middle income students went up by $200, so they are already behind only a year later.

These changes are going in the wrong direction. A post-secondary education is increasingly essential to getting a job and building a career. Many students have no choice but to build up a crushing debt while attending university or college; the Canadian average for student debt on graduation is over $25,000 while that in British Columbia is over $35,000. So, young Canadians already have mortgage-sized debts before they can even think about starting a family or buying a house. These debts not only dampen the dreams of our young people, they are a drag on the Canadian economy.

It is time to come up with a long-term plan to invest in post-secondary education, to invest in the youth of our country. To begin with, the federal government could immediately stop collecting interest on student loans. It makes no sense to make money off the future of young people. And the federal and provincial governments should start serious talks about how to reverse the long-term cuts to government funding of post-secondary education. At a time when knowledge is one of the most important resources in the world, we must make sure Canadians get the education they need to succeed.

I’m back in Ottawa this week as Parliament resumes sitting for the fall. If you have any issues you’d like to contact me about, my email address is richard.cannings@parl.gc.ca.

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