Students sinking deeper into debt
By Karen Seidman, The Gazette (Montreal), May 3, 2012
MONTREAL – Twelve weeks of student boycotts. Dozens of demonstrations. Two irreconcilable positions. It all adds up to one big mess as the season of discontent for Quebec students has extended from winter to spring – and
See article below: Student protests around the world
threatens to spill over into summer if something doesn’t happen soon to break the deadlock over tuition fee increases.
At the heart of the issue is something that is troubling students around the world these days: student loan debt in an age of poor job prospects and sometimes worthless university degrees.
Clashes between students and police have been common recently not just in Quebec, but in Chile, the United Kingdom, the U.S., Italy and New Zealand, just to name a few places. There have been rallies and marches and zombie flash mobs and kiss-ins – all facilitated by social media, which makes the challenge of assembly easier than ever. There was a Chilean Winter, but now we’re having a Printemps Érable.
Students here have resisted anything but the crux of their demand: a tuition freeze that will, hopefully, prevent them from incurring the type of higher debt that is rampant in the U.S. and even in the rest of Canada. Student debt in Canada reached $15 billion in 2010 – about four or five years sooner than had been forecast. And that’s just what’s owed the federal government.
“Student debt has increased consistently the last few years because students need more help to pay for tuition, which is increasing everywhere,” said Roxanne Dubois, national chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students, which represents about 600,000 students across the country. She believes it’s a myth that student loans are a good thing because a university degree leads to a lot of money. “The fact is, most will be average income earners,” said Dubois. “It seems the government wants to download the cost of an education onto students – and Quebec students are resisting that.”
Statistics Canada published a study in 2010 that found 57 per cent of the graduating class of 2005 had student loans, up from 49 per cent 10 years earlier. And the proportion of borrowers who graduated with debt loads of at least $25,000 increased to 27 per cent in 2005 from 17 per cent in 1995.
Currently, the average debt of Quebec students is about $14,000 upon graduation, while it ranges from $20,000 to $30,000 in the rest of the country. But Alex Usher, president of Toronto-based Higher Education Strategy Associates, says tuition and debt don’t always have anything to do with each other. He says students borrow much more in Sweden, where university education is free, because there are no restrictions on borrowing.
“They can borrow what they want and they borrow a lot,” said Usher. He says student loans work best if they can be paid off quickly. While no interest is paid when the student is in school, it jumps after they are finished. “It’s a good deal in the sense you can’t often get unsecured loans at that rate,” said Usher. “But it’s a lot more expensive than mortgage debt.”
Overall, he says, Quebec students have a better deal than those in the rest of Canada because loans here include a heavier mix of grant money (which does not have to be repaid). But he does agree Quebec students have a bone to pick concerning availability of loans, saying the government’s formula means most undergraduate students are considered dependents and their parents are expected to make a contribution. “It is harder to get a loan in Quebec than elsewhere,” said Usher. “But once you’re in, the loan-grant mix is more generous than elsewhere.”
The Liberals’ offer to students last week also included a proposal to make loan repayment proportional to income, which sounds fair. Not so, says Dubois. “This is dubbed ‘debt for life,’ ” she said. “Income-contingent loans have proven to be ineffective. It only accentuates the problem of student debt because they are paying it off for so long.”
Eric Martin, a researcher for the Institut de recherche et d’informations socio-économiques, agrees. He calls that offer “a poison gift” for the same reason Dubois stated. He said loans here may be lower than in the rest of Canada, but it’s because Quebec’s tuition has been lower. Once it goes up, he said, loans here will rise as well – and at a time when Canadian debt has never been higher.
“Students know this is bad for them – but there are two visions, and I don’t know how they can be reconciled,” he said. “This is an endless fight; I really think the government may have to call an election to resolve it.” Not that he even knows what that will accomplish, as he calls the Parti Québecois’s promise to undo any tuition hike “pure hogwash” and “political opportunism.”
“Most of the neo-liberal policies in place were put there by the PQ,” he said.
From Ontario to New Zealand, student protests are in season
By Karen Seidman, The Gazette (Montreal), May 3, 2012
MONTREAL – With students in Quebec in their 12th week of a strike that has no end in sight, it is easy to believe that turmoil caused by protesters is unique to this province. Not so. Students around the world – from as close as Ontario to as far as New Zealand – have been protesting against tuition increases and ballooning student debt. Those issues seem endemic to the times.
With so many jurisdictions facing economic challenges and imposing austerity programs, students have legitimate concerns about the value of their university degrees and their ability to pay off loans to obtain degrees that may prove to be worthless. It is a real battle of ideologies – the user-fee model of post-secondary education vs. universal accessibility.
Here’s a look at how this problem is playing out in different parts of the world.
ONTARIO: With tuition fees set to rise by about five per cent next year, the Toronto Star reported students in Ontario staged a sit-in recently to protest against what they called “mortgage-sized debt loads.” Students are frustrated Ontario spends less per student on higher education than most jurisdictions in Canada. Students managed to shut down the office of the minister of colleges and universities, Glen Murray.
UNITED STATES: This country probably most exemplifies what happens when tuition fees soar. With the U.S. student-loan debt just having reached $1 trillion – higher than the country’s credit-card debt – students have been protesting against the accumulation of debt, which shows no signs of slowing down. Student loans cannot be discharged, even in bankruptcy, so it is considered the debt that keeps on giving. The issue has recently become a political hot potato, as interest rates on a popular federal loan for poorer and middle-class students is set to double to 6.8 per cent from 3.4 per cent on July 1 without intervention from Congress. There was even a “kiss-in” in New York City’s Union Square to emphasize why the U.S. needs to “kiss student debt goodbye.” There is real concern that excessive student debt could slow the recovery of the housing market, and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York said in March that about 10 per cent of the outstanding student loan balance was delinquent in the third quarter. It also estimated that about 15 per cent of Americans have outstanding student-loan debt. There is so much rage that a campaign and petition – Forgiving Student Loan Debt – has about 670,000 signatures in its quest to urge the government to forgive all student debt.
The incident in November when police pepper-sprayed seated protesters at the University of California, Davis, underscores an ongoing theme in California, where prestigious public universities often face budget cuts and students typically respond with protests. Tuition at the University of California has risen by almost double over the last few years, and students have been demanding the fees be lowered. When tuition-fee activists merged with the Occupy movement last fall, it led to the much-criticized incident at Davis. A task force studying the event said in April there was “little evidence” the protesters had provoked police with violence.
UNITED KINGDOM: A controversial plan to triple university fees to about $14,000 a year sparked furious protests in the U.K., including a night of vandalism and riots in 2010 when protesters attacked a car carrying Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla. Demonstrations, which continued last year, have included smashed store windows, projectiles hurled at police and a giant Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square set on fire. The president of the National Union of Students has said students “face an unprecedented attack on our future before it even begins. They’re proposing barbaric cuts that would brutalize our colleges and universities.” The government has said the austerity measures are part of a plan to cut its very large budget deficit.
CHILE: Months of conflict last year between students and the police brought about some reforms to a system that favours children from wealthier families. But despite a proposed 2012 budget with a $350-million increase for post-secondary education, the protests started up again recently as students said the new measures had not gone far enough. The Chilean Winter has gained widespread support. Protests have involved tens of thousands of students – as well as all-too-common vandalism, standoffs between students and the police, and the use of rocks and chemical irritants.
NEW ZEALAND: Tuition fees have increased by 13 per cent since 2007, sparking protests and a billboard on the University of Auckland campus aimed at freshman students that reads: “Welcome to your new world – of debt.” One of the more brazen protests recently involved a group of nearly naked students parading around the university’s main quad. The creative Auckland University Students Association also has displayed ice sculptures to show its demand to “freeze fees.” Students have called for free education and say tuition fees have left them saddled with debt – about $13.9 billion of it at the end of 2010.
Students protest for ninth night in a row
Montreal Gazette, May 3, 2012
MONTREAL – For the ninth night in a row, students gathered in Émilie Gamelin Park for yet another night of marching through the streets.
The post-secondary students and their supporters have been doing this every night to protest the planned tuition hikes. As time goes on, the levels of participation have waned somewhat and the mood has become less violent and more festive.
On Wednesday night the student ventured farther west than normal and actually crossed into Westmount about 10 p.m. going west along Sherbrooke St. and up Clarke Ave., one of the steepest streets in the city.
Normally the route the students take is not known to police but the presence of a police helicopter over Westmount well before the marchers got there, and no parking/towing signs on Clarke, plus the rerouting of the 66 bus from the Boulevard to Westmount Ave. gave a hint that the police knew beforehand.
The destination of the marchers was Premier Jean Charest’s home on Victoria Ave. They arrived there shortly before 10:30 p.m. and staged a noisy sit-in. There was a strong police presence flanking Charest’s semi-detached home and the house was cordoned off with police tape.
After 30 minutes, the marchers slowly stood and moved on down the hill to Sherbrooke St. and eventually east back to their starting place after midnight, having covered 20 kilometres in under three hours.
A small band of marchers out to protest against the year-old majority Conservative government were out on Montreal streets Wednesday night, playing havoc with traffic. The marchers also left from Émilie Gamelin Park, as the student parades do every night, and went against traffic in many instances. Daniel Lacoursière, of Montreal police, says the crowd was small, there were no incidents and the march was peaceful.