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Marked absent: navigating the post-secondary policy landscape

Students are more than political “changemaker” talking points

November 1, 2021

5-minute read

Mere days before the writ dropped, the Prime Minister’s speech on International Youth Day highlighted some of the challenges facing young people:

“Young people are powerful leaders of change. They care deeply about our country, understand the issues we are facing, and know that we have to—and can—do better... Over the past year and a half, they have shown incredible strength and determination and made great sacrifices to help keep our communities safe and healthy. Unfortunately, they have also been among the most impacted by the global COVID-19 pandemic, with significant job losses and a severe mental health decline.”

Which made it all the more peculiar that post-secondary education was remarkably absent as a topic of debate during the recent federal election—in spite of the writ period aligning with the final weeks of summer and the start of the fall semester.

Vote on Campus, an initiative implemented in 2015 and expanded in 2019 to increase the youth vote, was cancelled in the fall of 2020. According to one spokesperson, the program “ha[d] never been offered in a minority situation with no fixed date to plan ahead, let alone during a pandemic.” But the program was cancelled months before the writ drop, which makes this decision seem like a pre-emptive throw-in-the-towel strategy.

This is not the first time that the pandemic demonstrated the folly of neglecting our public infrastructure or the vital role public institutions like universities could and should play during times of crisis—as communication hubs and service delivery centres, among other things. But I was struck by the ironic bookends to the Prime Minister’s glowing Youth Day tribute—the virtual absence of discussion about an entire generation in the policy debates and the somewhat breezy disregard of the implications of cancelling an initiative designed to encourage civic engagement amongst said generation of “leaders of change.”

So, after being virtually left out of the election conversation, what realities do students face this fall?

There is no question that debt is an issue that needs to be addressed. Estimates put the average student debt load (federal) at about $28,000, which does not include provincial or private debt. And the impacts are profound: according to one study, in 2018, student debt contributed to 1 in 6 insolvencies in Ontario (a number that has been rising). The same study suggests that when private loans (like credit cards, for example) are factored into debt loads, that dollar amount increases significantly.

And as we know, the effects of debt linger. It makes it more difficult to have savings, or to make major purchases… Debt can even postpone life decisions like having kids, buying a car or house (assuming you can afford one), or moving out of your parents’. It can also trap young people in a cycle of precarity—cobbling together two or more part time jobs to try and earn enough to cover basic living expenses and pay back their debt once it comes due. And that’s a hard cycle to break out of because debt makes it very hard to take chances or pursue a passion unless it comes with a sufficient salary. Not only does innovation become a privilege that those without debt and with a safety net can afford, so does volunteerism… and all those other things that look great on a CV.

The pandemic has thrown all this into sharp relief. As Katherine Scott explained in March 2021: “I think we have to be very explicit about centering the economic needs of young people, and that includes young people that won't be involved in post-secondary because … those with lower levels of education face even more barriers. We have to look at the tools we have, we have to look at the affordability of post-secondary school, as well as a good jobs strategy, and we need to be thinking about the quality of jobs on offer.”

The economy matters, of course. Recent Labour Force Survey data suggests that there is a growing divide between younger students (15-19) and their older counterparts (20-24). Throughout the summer, this was very clear: among teenagers, employment in August was 5.8% higher than in February 2020 but dropped 5.3% for those aged 20 to 24. It remains to be seen how these trends will change with the return to school. Data for youth returning to school this fall is also instructive: the employment rate for students aged 20 to 24 was down 5.1 percentage points. The employment rate among female students aged 20 to 24 was down even further from the 2019 summer average by 7.5 percentage points.

None of this should be shocking—there’s a reason debt is referred to as a burden, and one that is not equally shared, as COVID has made even more clear. But it’s always struck me as deeply ironic that there’s an element of the population that thinks debt is terribly bad for governments, yet somehow character-building for young people who need to learn the value of a dollar and benefits of hard work (even if their work is undervalued and undercompensated). Even the Canada Emergency Student Benefit provided less per month than the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, seemingly confident in the belief that a magical student discount applies to rent and all other living expenses or that every young person has the option of sleeping on their parents’ couch until things start looking up.

As provincial operational funding for post-secondary education has declined for the most part, institutions have turned to students and their families to make up the difference in fees. It’s true that tuition fees are certainly not the only expense associated with post-secondary education. But they are a cost that can be controlled, to some extent, by government policy—far more than student housing, textbooks, or other compulsory fees (which a handful of provinces have made minimal efforts to constrain). And as the cost burden has shifted from governments to individuals, a number of provinces have gone even further by embracing the two-tier model, charging one set of fees for in-province students, and a higher one for out-of-province students.

As I’ve pointed out previously, the two-tier tuition fee route and the differences in fees between areas of study, combined with a near universal penchant for after-the-fact rather than direct fee reduction, makes it much more difficult to get a handle on the actual costs students and their families are expected to bear (or, arguably, to organize against). And the ongoing maze of overlapping and sometimes contradictory student assistance programs and savings mechanisms creates even more confusion and complications. Students are left to navigate a patchwork lottery of government policies that vacillate between abdicating responsibility and competing public relations exercises.

But what’s clear is that in the midst of a global pandemic, with a deeply precarious job market that hasn’t come close to recovery for young workers, tuition fees continue to increase. (Ontario is the exception, where fees remain frozen as third highest in the country as a much more generous student grants program was eliminated in 2019.) And the resultant debt continues to accumulate. Despite all this, preferred policy responses seem to be rooted in acceptance that debt is an inconvenience to be managed—by kicking it further down the road, by eliminating the interest charged on it, or by reducing the federal component—rather than an obstacle to be eliminated at the outset.

A federal election would have been the opportune time to speak directly to, in the Prime Minister’s words, those young people who “understand the issues we are facing, and know that we have to—and can—do better…[who have been] among the most impacted by the global COVID-19 pandemic, with significant job losses and a severe mental health decline.” It would have been the perfect moment to speak to the issue of student debt accumulation and its lasting effects; to ensure adequate public funding for post-secondary institutions and stem the creep of privatization; to end the reliance on contract workers on campuses across the country; to address the weak job market for this generation and the prevalence of precarious employment in which so many young people find themselves trapped; to acknowledge the impact of precarity and debt on mental health, on civic engagement, and on community involvement.

Students are more than political “changemaker” talking points. If we miss this chance to support them, particularly during such an unprecedented context and at such a pivotal time in their lives, we risk leaving a generation behind.

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