As the NDP critic for post-secondary education, I’ve met with a number of groups over the past weeks and months to discuss the opportunities and challenges facing universities, colleges and technical institutions, as well as with the students who are working hard to better their futures.
And the benefits to post-secondary education are many. It gives young people a much greater chance for employment; it is estimated that 80 percent of all jobs will soon require education beyond a high school diploma. And those jobs are higher paying; university graduates earn an average of $79,000.
The challenges are also daunting. Tuition fees have risen in real terms by 137 percent over the past 20 years alone. Housing costs have skyrocketed as well. The cost of a post-secondary education is now well over $10,000 per year and is often more than double that. For medicine and law programs the cost is often a mind-boggling $75,000 per year.
Wages for summer jobs, needless to say, haven’t kept up with those costs, so many students are forced to take out loans. In 2013 almost a half million students borrowed from the Canada Student Loans Program and others took out private loans. The average student debt increased 40 percent between 2000 and 2010, and is now $26,300 for students graduating with an undergraduate degree. Students know how important higher education is for their futures, but are being saddled with crushing debts at the start of their careers.
Much of the cause of this drastic increase in tuition fees lies in a significant decrease in government funding for universities and colleges, especially on the federal side.
In 1995, the federal Liberal government slashed provincial transfers for social programs, including post-secondary education, by $7 billion, one of the deepest cuts in Canadian history. Accounting for both inflation and enrolment growth, federal funding for post-secondary education is still $2.4 billion less than it was in 1993, a 50 percent drop.
Adding to this loss of federal funding is the fact that these transfer payments are no longer tied to agreements for spending on post-secondary education, and provinces often cut back on university and college funding even when the federal transfer payments they receive are increasing.
So what should be done?
One obvious fix would be to create a transfer of federal funds to provinces that is directly targeted to post-secondary education, similar to what is done for health care. This would relieve the need of many universities and colleges to continually raise tuition fees.
We could also make changes to the federal student loans and grants so that the burden the students bear is less onerous. We also need to continually work to ensure that young Canadians receive an education that readies them for today’s jobs.
And what is clear is that we must fix this system quickly to ensure that Canada has a well-educated workforce to make our country competitive in the global economy.
Richard Cannings, NDP, is he Member of Parliament for the South Okanagan – West Kootenay constituency. His column appears regularly.