With the recent growth of Quest University, Squamish is increasingly a knowledge-based town, making the pressures facing students in postsecondary institutions not just individual concerns, but community ones.
While tuition is certainly the largest gorilla in the pocketbook of students, other factors related to affordability — such as interest rates on student loans and the availability of non-repayable, needs-based student grants — affect university students both public and private, Michelle Mungall, the New Democrats’ critic for advanced education, said during a visit to Squamish on Friday (Sept. 14).
After visiting with students and staff at Quest, Mungall said that even though it’s a private institution whose tuition fees are not set by government, the approximately 430 students now attending Quest have many of the same affordability concerns as the around 300 attending programs at the Squamish campus of Capilano University and other B.C. public institutions.
Mungall, the MLA for Nelson-Creston, and NDP skills training critic Gwen O’Mahoney have been on a two-week tour of university campuses to gather input on how best to address what they see as shortcomings in B.C.’s postsecondary education and skills training sectors.
Tuition at B.C. public institutions has doubled in the past 10 years, Mungall said. B.C. also has the highest student loan interest rate — prime plus 2.25 per cent — in the country and, unlike most others, has had no needs-based, non-repayable student grant program. The B.C. Liberal government eliminated the old grant program in 2004.
Mungall said she thinks bringing back such a program — the NDP is proposing to pump $100 million into it if elected in the May 2013 election — would be an affordable way to ease students’ financial burdens and get newly trained workers into the labour market sooner.
The current average debt load for students finishing postsecondary schooling in B.C. is $27,000. Many students are studying only part-time, because they also to work while attending classes as a way to reduce the size of their debt when they finish university, she said. That means they’re taking longer than four years to complete their degrees and delaying their entry into the job market, creating a drain on the province’s overall level of productivity.
“When young people take less time to finish their programs, they’re taking less time to get into the labour market, and research is showing that 85 per cent of our new jobs in the next 10 years are going to be taking some form of postsecondary degree,” she said.
The NDP is proposing to pay for reinstatement of the needs-based grant program by bringing back the minimum tax on financial institutions.
Mungall said the students and administrators she talked to at Quest were supportive of the idea of bringing back a needs-based, non-repayable grants program for low- and middle-income students.
David Clarkson, a Squamish resident and University Senate representative with the Capilano University Students’ Union, voiced support for measures aimed at easing postsecondary students’ debt load — and not just because it’s better for the students themselves.
He said a non-repayable grants program should be part of an overall financial aid scheme that aims to get young people into the job market sooner. He said he would also like to see the post-graduation interest-free period for paying back student loans increased from the current six months.
“The real benefit there is not just helping students out, which is important, but these programs increase the rate of degree completion,” Clarkson said. “Right now you may have students dropping out in second year because they can’t afford to take on more debt. From a public policy standpoint, there’s not a lot being invested in these people.”
Clarkson said the overall funding picture for postsecondary institutions has suffered in the past decade, to the detriment of jobs training and productivity. He said he recognizes the challenges universities have faced in recent years just keeping programs running, mentioning the recently cancelled tourism training program at the Capilano University Squamish campus as a decision that had a “significant effect” on jobs training in the corridor.
“The university has difficult decisions when there’s a funding shortfall, and I think they’ve done an OK job so far, but it’s kind of like deciding how to crash-land an airplane,” Clarkson said. “The real question is figuring out how not to crash it in the first place.”