Universities across Canada advocate for greater financial aid

In 2020-2021, the average tuition for full-time undergraduate programs across Canada is $6,580 per year. 52 per cent of students graduate with student debt and an average student has a total of $28,000 in debt when they graduate. 

52 per cent of students graduate with student debt and an average student has a total of $28,000 in debt when they graduate.

Student debt in Canada has been deemed a crisis by many. In 2018, Canadian students collectively owed over $28 billion in student debt. 

The McMaster Students Union is one of the student unions that have joined in to work on the Debt Free Degree campaign, advocating for more accessible and affordable post-secondary education in Canada. 

This campaign is led by the Undergraduates of Canadian Research-Intensive Universities and the University Students’ Council at Western University. 

Other student unions that are also taking part in the campaign include the University of Toronto Students’ Union, Students’ Society of McGill University, Waterloo Undergraduate Student Association and more

These nine student unions represent students of the U15 group of Canadian research intensive universities. Collectively, the student unions represent over 250,000 students.

The campaign is calling for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion Carla Qualtrough to take action.

Mackenzy Metcalfe, vice president of external affairs at Western’s University Students Council and chair of UCRU, said that this would put grants at a total increase of $1200 per student for the 2020-2021 federal budget.

Policy recommendations from the campaign include doubling of investments in Canada Student Grants from what was provided in 2019. Mackenzy Metcalfe, vice president of external affairs at Western’s University Students Council and chair of UCRU, said that this would put grants at a total increase of $1200 per student for the 2020-2021 federal budget.

This amounts to roughly $1 billion from the government. Metcalfe also noted that this was one of the promises made by the Liberal party during the 2019 election. This increase in grants would apply to all students eligible for financial aid.

“Investments in students are investments in the future. Students are really going to make up the workforce of tomorrow and increasing funding for student financial aid will undoubtedly see exponential return in the next couple of years,” said Metcalfe. 

“Investments in students are investments in the future. Students are really going to make up the workforce of tomorrow and increasing funding for student financial aid will undoubtedly see exponential return in the next couple of years,” said Metcalfe. 

MSU Vice President (Education) Ryan Tse declined an interview but wrote in an email statement that the MSU is excited to work on this campaign.

“The Debt Free Campaign [gives] students the opportunity to share their stories and call on the government to help make postsecondary education more accessible and affordable,” wrote Tse.

In previous years, UCRU had advocated for the transfer of federal tuition tax credits to student grants. Currently, the recommendation for the federal government to transfer tuition tax credit funds to upfront grants is also an MSU policy. 

However, the Debt Free Degree campaign had decided not to specify federal tuition tax credits as a source of funding for student grants, but simply advocate for an increase in grants.

“UCRU still believes that tax credits from tuition should be relocated to upfront grants for students, however, during our past few lobby weeks, UCRU received feedback from the government about the proposal. We heard from multiple sources in government that they were not interested in making this change to the tax credit system. However, we did hear that they were interested in supporting students through student financial aid,” Metcalfe explained. 

Although recommendations from the campaign ultimately do not eliminate student debt, Metcalfe said that having a larger proportion of financial aid as grants rather than loans will help decrease the amount of accumulated debt.

Aside from an increase in student grants, the campaign also recommends a two-year grace period on all federal student loans. Currently, federal student loans have a grace period of six months

In other words, students have six months following their study period with no accumulation of interest on their federal student loans. Aside from finishing their final school term, students are also required to repay loans six months after they leave school, take time off school, or transfer from full-time to part-time studies. After those six months, students are expected to begin payment and interests will accumulate. 

In Ontario, financial aid for students is regulated by the Ontario Student Assistance Program. OSAP incorporates both federal and provincial student loans and grants. 

On a provincial level, student loan requirements differ depending on the province. Students in Ontario are not expected to start repaying their provincial student loans until after the first six months, but their loans do accumulate interest during that period of time. 

Across social media, the campaign shares various infographics comparing the average amount of student debt to other various items of the same monetary value such as 112 pairs of AirPods, a Honda Civic, 233 years worth of Netflix subscriptions and 9 million cups of coffee. 

Students were encouraged to join the movement by writing a postcard to their local member of parliament. A Google form at www.debtfreedegree.ca was available for students to fill out and UCRU will send the postcard on the student’s behalf. 

Students were also asked to spread the word by sharing posts with the hashtag #DebtFreeDegree on their social media and provide UCRU with feedback by emailing info@ucru.ca

The campaign ended on Nov. 16 and Metcalfe stated that over 200 students had shared their feedback. These student concerns will be presented to federal policy makers during UCRU’s annual Federal Lobby Week. This year, the federal lobby week is scheduled from Nov. 23-27.

Image courtesy of C/O Michael Fleshman

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