That red square of indebtedness

It doesn’t look like Quebec’s current student “strike” will end anytime soon. Every day there’s news more student associations across Quebec have voted down the Quebec government’s proposal -the deal negotiated last weekend that was supposed to spell the end of student protests against tuition hikes.

Today Artistes contre la hausse, a group representing more than 500 artists working in the cultural sector, announced they are siding with the demonstrating students. I must say I’m impressed with some of the media coverage lately. It’s a relief to see that not every journalist and scribe is swallowing the line that the students are a bunch of Starbucks-going, smartphone-owning brats (and not everyone is automatically assuming students had a hand in smoke bombing the metro). Instead some reporters and columnists are explaining some of the reasons why protesting students are wearing red squares – to symbolize being “in the red” because of indebtedness and to remind people of the social contract the Quebec government made with students during the Quiet Revolution in the 1960s.

As a Quebecer who attended university out of province, I am well aware university tuition here costs far less than most other places in North America. But having paid higher tuition elsewhere and having seen the suffering students elsewhere endure to get a university degree I can’t support having Quebec students join everyone else in paying more.

It’s a dumb argument, saying that just because tuition is higher elsewhere it should be higher here.

Why?

A few reasons:

In Nova Scotia I saw students juggling three summer jobs to save up enough money for tuition. We don’t have enough jobs here to provide the jobs students will need to afford a tuition hike.

Quebec is different. Our policies are different. We used to stand for accessible education. We should continue on that path.

It would make more sense for us to model ourselves after Scotland or Ireland where for years university tuition was low or completely free. Those policy decisions were about being competitive on the global market by making it easy for citizens to have the skills and education required to be serious players on the world stage. These days, as the students point out, you need a university degree to participate in the knowledge economy.

It hasn’t been that easy for people who need financial aid to get it. And even if the government makes it easier for students to get financial help, chances are most of it will be student loans.

What the students have realized is that this tuition hike is not about getting money for cash-strapped universities. It’s about benefiting banks and big business.

Students loans are supposed to be for students who would otherwise be unable to attend university. They’re guaranteed by the government and issued by banks. If students default on loans and loans are sent back to the Quebec government, banks are reimbursed. Interest charged on loans and the terms of the loans is decided by the banks. When students default, the Quebec government continues to charge interest and the debt is owed for life. As well, the government has the right to seize tax credits and refunds from defaulters until the debt is paid. If you owe money on a Quebec student loan you are ineligible to take out new student loans until your debt is paid. You can declare bankruptcy only after 10 years.

I graduated with my second university degree in the middle of a recession and could not afford the $130 plus minimum payment the bank demanded. I used the deferred payment plan to postpone payments but still did not find work that paid enough for me to make the monthly payments the bank demanded. The bank refused to lower the payments to accommodate my situation and it would not lower the interest or renegotiate the loan terms so I could more easily pay back the loan. My loan was a 10-year loan. I believe this is the standard term the Quebec government loans. My loan went into default and I now deal directly with the Quebec government via the Ministry of Education’s collections department. In the time between when the first payments were owed on the loan and when the government tracked me down, interest on my loan added several thousand dollars to my total debt.

Unlike the Canada Student loan program, which offers repayment assistance to borrowers having trouble repaying their loans,  under the current system the Quebec government is nasty to people who owe them money. Thanks to a policy that was passed by the Parti Québécois, the government has the right to seize tax refunds and credits, even credits that are part of the government’s anti-poverty measures. As a single mom I am supposed to receive a monthly Solidarity Tax Credit of more than $80 but I never see it because I still owe money on the loan. I am not allowed to take out any more student loans until my full debt is repaid.

I have been lectured by my service du recouvrement officer about how my loan should have been repaid within 10 years. I ask her how many people who have suffered severe depression and lived below the poverty line have paid their loans off in 10 years? Someone I know who hails from Denmark says in Denmark student loans are set at 15-year repayment terms and the amount you repay is based on your income and ability to pay. Not so in la belle province. At least not right now.

Big business benefits when students pay for their own training because it reduces the onus on businesses to train workers. Corporations benefit from tax breaks and subsidies but are not required to invest in workers. By answering shareholders instead of communities, many of these businesses aren’t looking out for society’s bottom line. Lowering corporate taxes translates into subsidizing big businesses that don’t care if people go into debt for jobs that may or may not even stay in Quebec.

Young people aren’t the only people affected by tuition hikes. Many people, including immigrants and people whose job prospects have imploded (journalism anyone?), have to go back to school to train for new careers. High debt will make it impossible for people to afford to pay for the training.

Rising tuition rates means low income students will have to choose “practical” degrees that will at the end of the day lead to obvious jobs. Why pursue an arts degree when there is no guarantee of a job? The supposed “smart” students will head for business or engineering or accounting, the sorts of degrees that are valued by business. Never mind that Montreal is a cultural hub and arts grads are creating jobs here and adding value to our society by thinking outside the box. Some of our biggest successes have come from the creative side – Cirque du Soleil, the Jazz Fest, Just for Laughs, Twist Image, Moment Factory, our zany foodie scene, tech startups, award-winning filmmakers, Pop Montreal, Osheaga, Arcade Fire, the list goes on. What would Montreal be without these?

Other aspects of the tuition hike that don’t get talked about much

  • That 1968 benchmark. It’s ironic that 1968, the very year the civil rights movement exploded in North America, keeps getting mentioned as a yardstick for a fair tuition hike. One argument being trotted out is accounting for inflation the proposed hike doesn’t even match the $900 or so paid in 1968. As I understand it grads from 1968 had no problems finding work, inflation was lower and there was little indebtedness. I don’t think you can say the economy is as rosy now as it was in 1968. It seems 1968 grads went on to buy houses and found great jobs. It’s nowhere near as easy now. I can count on one hand friends who can afford to buy a house in Montreal.
  • CEGEP (Quebec community colleges with pre-university programs that are equivalent to Grades 12 and 13) may have free tuition but they do have other fees. Attendance is hardly free. As well, a friend points out that CEGEP students have played a big role in the tuition hike protests and have made up the majority of protesters.

Quebec universities have been making up alleged tuition “shortfalls” by charging extra fees and by charging higher tuition to out-of-province and international students.

It’s hard to believe universities are lacking for money when they pay administrators six-figure salaries.

News reports say under the Charest government’s proposal the government will raise tuition fees over seven years instead of six and index tuition hikes to the cost of living and will find ways to reduce wasteful spending and then the ancillary fees. One of the biggest concern for students is the ancillary (extra) fees. The Charest government’s proposal mentions the setup of a provisional committee that will examine spending at universities. The presumption is this new committee will be able to get universities to reduce or waive extra fees.

The proposal includes plans for increased access to loans and bursaries and having students repay loans proportionate to their incomes

But can the government be trusted?

If you factor in the extra fees students say they’re currently paying, if Charest’s proposed hikes happen and those extra fees somehow are never lowered, university will cost at least $4,000 a year in 2017. That does not include books and living expenses for students who don’t live at home. If the hikes happen, students can expect a first university degree to cost between $15,000 and $20,000 a year in 2017, that’s if you factor in materials, books, living expenses, extra fees and tuition. My son will probably need $60,000 to afford his first university degree. That’s insane.

I have met people who cannot afford the tuition being charged now. I think of all the Caribbean-born nursing assistants and nurse’s aides I’ve met who have found themselves pushed out of jobs in the health care sector and who returned to school to pursue 18-month CEGEP diplomas in nursing. They were raising families and couldn’t afford to pursue bachelor of science in nursing degrees.

Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney has been cautioning Canadians about our high rates of indebtedness. These days the average Canadian has a  record high household debt of over 15o per cent of disposable income.

Why would the students want to join that club?

OpenFile Montreal reports Montreal dollar stores are running out of red felt, probably because students have bought all the red felt to cut out those little red squares they’ve been attaching to their clothes or bags with safety pins.

The Charest government doesn’t appear to be willing to budge on tuition hikes. Last weekend’s deal is collapsing and it’s difficult to tell if students will even accept a modified deal. It’s hard to say when the dollar stores will see their stocks of red felt replenished.

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That red square of indebtedness

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