Centre for the Study of Democracy calls for improved access to education

New paper calls for lowered student loan interest, increased grants

The Centre for the Study of Democracy (CSD) at Queen’s University is joining the chorus calling for the federal and provincial governments to improve student financial aid. In a paper released in draft form Wednesday, the CSD lists fifteen suggestions for government to act on.

Entitled “Quality and Equitable Access in Canada’s Post Secondary System: Can We Have Both?,” the paper identifies problems ranging from deficiencies in policies promoting Registered Educations Savings Plans (RESP), poorly administered financial aid, high student loan interest rates, and a lack of national or provincial data about the post-secondary system.

“Government has to think big” if we want to tackle the challenges facing Canada’s post-secondary system according to Tom Axworthy, chair of the CSD. “Canada’s future, both for equity and for the economy, resides on a well-trained, educated workforce and we don’t think [post-secondary education] is getting the public policy attention it deserves.”

Axworthy says the release of the paper is only the first step. CSD is putting out the paper as a draft in the hope of improving the recommendations based on feedback received from academics and other stakeholders in post-secondary education.

On Wednesday, CSD hosted a joint symposium with the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance which gathered academics to discuss the paper and issues related to higher education.

What makes this different than papers calling for government action to improve education policy is the CSD is building a coalition of both private and public sector stakeholders to lobby for its implementation. CSD plans to take the final version of the paper and convert it into a policy paper to present to senior cabinet ministers, MPs and civil servants.

The paper calls on all both provincial and federal governments to immediately increase the amount of money available as grants for low-income students, calling for low-income students to receive a $6,000 grant towards their tuition costs.

Governments should make student loan management easier by improving the repayment process and lowering interest rates on student loans to the prime rate or better. Presently, the floating rate for federal student loans is 2.5 per cent above prime. Many student lobbying organizations, coalitions and opposition parties have called on the federal government to cut the interest rate.

Valerie Ashford, author of the paper, is concerned that too many qualified students are not entering the system due to barriers built into the financial aid system. She didn’t enter her undergraduate program until age 31. She was a single mother on social assistance and was only able to attend university by taking out student loans while remaining on mother’s allowance to support herself and her child.

Ashford completed her Master’s just before the mid-90s cuts to social assistance by the Ontario government. “I remain convinced that the single worst consequence of the Common Sense Revolution is that low-income parents can no longer receive social assistance and student loans, making university thoroughly inaccessible,” she writes. “I no longer see the number of single and low-income parents who were once numerous and visible, who once had the opportunity to lift themselves from the prospect of a flat and bleak future, intellectually and economically, through education, who once brought such vivacity and diversity of life experience into university classrooms.”

The government should stop clawbacks on scholarships, bursaries, and social assistance for students who need the supports. Without these changes, people will be held back from education, says Ashford.

The present implementation of RESPs is lacking, and Ashford suggests policy changes. Presently, students can only receive $5,000 from their RESP during the first term of full-time study and students must pay income tax on funds from their RESP. The paper calls for the elimination of the withdrawal restriction and taxation of funds used to support a student’s education. Currently, RESP assets are not protected during bankruptcy proceedings, the papers call for them to be protected.

The CSD is calling on provincial governments to organize conferences at a provincial level to address changes they can make and for a national conference to be held by the end of 2010 to build a national plan to address both equitable access and the quality of education.

None of the changes proposed require legislative changes, they can all be implemented by governments changing their policies. Axworthy says they “just require political will to implement.”