The skinny on the student strike
March 21, 2005 § 6 Comments
Since you ask, the massive student strike pictured below is a response to the Quebec government’s plan to cut $103 million dollars from the province’s student bursary program. Until now, university students applying for financial aid in Quebec received a combination of loans, to be repaid upon completion of their studies, and non-repayable bursaries. This program, along with a long-standing freeze on tuition fees, is the primary reason that Quebec university graduates carry the smallest debt burden in Canada. Under the reformed system, the bursary component will be eliminated for all but the most underprivileged applicants, to be replaced by substantially larger loans. This, in turn, will set the stage for the eradication of Quebec’s tuition freeze, which university administrators have been actively lobbying the government to rescind for years.
The same set of policies came into effect in Ontario in 1993, which happened to be my second year of undergraduate study. In my first year, I received $7366 in government financial aid for tuition and living expenses, exactly half of which came in the form of a non-repayable grant. In my second year and every year thereafter, I received roughly the same amount in repayable loans, which doubled my debt load virtually overnight. In my third year, the Canadian government ceased to guarantee student loans to the banks that distributed them; in exchange for taking on liability, the banks demanded greater control over the loan system, which they immediately received. As a result, student financial aid was transformed from a public service into a private concern – it remains a government program, but in name only.
There were other changes as well. Canadians could no longer declare bankruptcy on student loans, a right that is enjoyed by virtually all other debtors, including oil companies, financial speculators, and gambling addicts. At the insistence of the banks, the repayment period was set at a maximum of ten years, irrespective of the total amount of the loan or the income-level of the individual debtor. If the debtor is financially unable to meet their minimum payments, their loans go immediately into default; only then are they permitted to negotiate reduced payments, at the discretion of the collection agency that has purchased their case. The banks set the “grace period” for repayment at six months, which allows students to have summers off but not to take longer leaves of absence, including medical leaves.
Further, the amount of income that students are allowed to earn from paid employment or scholarly awards while receiving aid was capped; if this amount is exceeded, the student is expected to immediately repay the equivalent amount of the loan they have received to their lending institution. As a final indignity, the banks limited the period of time that continuing students can defer repayment of their loans; this limit, which was initially set at 520 weeks and has been lowered further since, does not take into account enrolment in graduate school, with the result that it is often reached about halfway through a student’s doctoral studies.
At the same time, university tuition fees increased dramatically. During my five years of undergraduate study, the tuition I paid rose by 50%; over the same period, the amount of student aid I received increased by less than 5%. Since I couldn’t figure out how to live in the city of Toronto on less than $5,000 a year, and since additional employment income would have been deducted from my loan amounts, I resorted to working under the table throughout my undergraduate degree to make ends meet.
In retrospect, I can think of no government policy that has had a more insidious effect on my everyday life than this one. At present, I owe roughly $35,000 in student loans, all of which were incurred during my undergraduate degree. Assuming the maximum repayment period of ten years, I am minimally liable for monthly payments of $450 per month, regardless of my employment status or level of income. I have not taken any time off during my three degree programs because I couldn’t afford to carry my loan repayments in the interim. For the same reason, I did not take leaves of absence when my father was diagnosed with cancer, when my brother suffered his first schizophrenic episode, or when my ex had a nervous breakdown. In spite of not once interrupting my studies, I will hit my loan deferment wall sometime in the next several months and have no grounds to appeal. Having lived with someone who was forced to default on their loans, I have by association endured years of threatening phone calls from collections agents, the unannounced garnisheeing of income tax refunds, and the refusal of banks to provide the basic service of a savings account.
It is much worse for some of my friends, who are anxiously staving off loans two to three times larger than my own. When they finally complete their doctorates in English or, worse yet, Philosophy, they will have to reserve, at minimum, $12,000 of their annual income for loan repayments for the next ten years of their lives. This is not impossible on a professor’s salary, but what if a tenure-track paycheque doesn’t fall into their laps within six months of graduation? What if the best they can manage is a gig as a sessional course instructor, with pay of $15,000 or less per year? What then? Sometimes, when we talk about these things over beer, our conversations are shadowed by regret, and always there is the silent, nagging question: was it really worth it?
This is, for me at least, what the student strike is about. I believe that education is a right, not a privilege. I believe that scholarly work contributes to the greater good. And I believe in the socialist values that have shaped Canadian society, and which, ironically, have been eroded everywhere but in Quebec. If the strike is successful, it will prove that the neoliberal agenda can be opposed, which is a good thing for anyone who cares about things other than profit.
OK, so that’s the skinny on the student strike. Thanks for listening.