Union Raises Alarm Over Skyrocketing Student Debt

May 8, 2012 Updated: October 1, 2015
Students protest in Montreal on April 26.

As Quebec student protestors mark their third straight month of taking a stand against proposed tuition hikes, the Canadian Federation of Students is warning that student debt across Canada is reaching “dangerous levels.”

This year, national student debt will reach $15 billion. However, this figure only accounts for loans doled out by the federal government. If provincial and private lenders are included, the actual student debt is billions more.

“In Canada we’re reaching pretty dangerous levels of student debt. It’s a huge burden to put on the youth of today,” says Roxanne Dubois, chair of the CFS, which represents half a million students. In addition, young people are facing an unemployment rate that’s double the rate of the overall population, she says.

“We’re expecting [youth] to head out into the job market and try to contribute to the Canadian economy. It’s difficult to do that when you have so much debt upon graduation, and it gets even more difficult when the unemployment rate is so high.”

Dubois says tuition fees have increased at four times the rate of inflation in the past decade, in part due to massive education funding cuts by the federal government in the 1990s that have trickled down to students, making them ever more dependent on loans.

The average debt-load for Canadian graduates today is $27,000. Dubois says this kind of debt is not only scaring away students from impoverished backgrounds, but increasingly the middle class as well.

“The costs of post-secondary education have increased so much that it’s becoming inaccessible for a lot of people,” she says, adding students who are forced into large amounts of debt at an early age are likely to struggle with it for the rest of their lives.

“If you have a huge loan to pay then you’re going to have to pay it for a longer period of time and end up paying more because of interest rates. Relying heavily on student debt simply replicates the inequalities that education is supposed to alleviate.”

Protests Growing Worldwide

Quebec students began protesting after the Charest government proposed tuition hikes that would lead to a 75 percent increase over five years.

Although Quebec has some of the lowest tuition fees in the country due to a history of provincial subsidies and tuition controls, students have strongly opposed the increases in a larger boycott of what they say are neoliberal austerity measures and a capitalist agenda.

This week, talks between Quebec student groups and the Liberal government fell flat, as students rejected a deal aimed at lessening the effects of the tuition hike.

Students in several other countries have also taken to the streets in the past year to vent their dissatisfaction with rising education costs.

Protests have made headlines in Chile, the United Kingdom, the United States, Italy, and New Zealand, ranging from violent clashes with police to hunger strikes, sit-ins, and rallies.

Dubois says the increasing pressure on students will reach a breaking point, adding that making education inaccessible for many hits a core nerve and leads to cynicism among youth.

“When we’re being told from all sides that we will not benefit from the same conditions that our parents or the previous generations were able to, we’re being told, essentially, that we shouldn’t have a good future, and that’s not fair to anyone. So of course people are going to fight back,” she says.

“I think that the breaking point here is whether or not we’re going to start building systems that are inclusive of everyone.”