By Graeme McNaughton/The Oshawa Express
The debt of going to college and university is too high for one young couple. And it’s a future they don’t want to pass on to their young daughter.
Jesse Cullen is nearing the end of his time at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT), wrapping up his fourth year in the criminology and justice program.
“I’m personally $60,000 in debt alone. My partner is a Durham College student who will be graduating this year, and she has another $25,000 and she just got accepted to a (post-graduate program) for addictions and mental health, which will make her employable at the end of the day, but we’re going to be well over $100,000 in debt at the end of the day,” Cullen says. “We have a two-and-a-half year old at home, and so if tuition continues to rise at the rate it is now, our daughter will be paying about $100,000 for her undergraduate or her college diploma, and how are we ever going to pay for her education when we can’t even get ours paid for. We have to think of the future.”
It was because of this and seeing a similar future for many other students that Cullen got involved with Drop Tuition @ UOIT, which in solidarity with other schools across the country, is organizing a student walkout on March 24 to protest the high costs of learning.
The group held a vote last week to decide whether to join the downtown campus in walking out of classes for a day next month – the motion passed unanimously.
“We’re here because tuition is too damn high,” Cullen says. “Ontario is the most expensive place in Canada to be a university student.”
Drop Tuition UOIT is calling on the provincial government to eventually abolish tuition fees altogether – putting it in the same category as other jurisdictions with zero-rate tuition, including Germany, Scotland and Finland – starting with an immediate reduction to levels from a decade ago.
“We’re also calling for the immediate debt relief for students on the provincial portion of student loans. There are many ways to provide debt relief, including forgiving all student debt currently owed,” Cullen says, adding other options include offering zero-interest loans or replacing loans with grants.
To come up with the extra money needed to make post-secondary education free, Cullen offers up some ideas.
“Simply returning corporate taxes to 2009 levels would raise $2.5 billion. A one per cent increase in income taxes for the wealthiest 10 per cent would yield another $638 million. A 10-cent rise in gas taxes, which also has the added benefit of incentivising gas conservation to fight climate change, would raise another $2 billion,” he says, citing a report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. “Any one of these measures or a combination of them would be more than enough to pay for every student in Ontario to go to school for free.”
The movement also has the support of a group of teachers on campus.
“When we talk about tuition, we are talking about debt. That’s the connection that everybody has to make. When tuition goes up, debt goes up. And when your debt goes up, your future is mortgaged against your requirement to pay back that debt,” Gary Genosko, the president of the UOIT Faculty Association, told the students at the meeting. “When everybody gets that straight, then we can have a large scale action that’s effective and that sends a very strong message to the governments both at the Ontario level and the federal level. In addition to which, we need to send a message to our chief administrators at this university here as well.”
Genosko also highlighted how the recent failure of Everest College, the for-profit college that had its 14 Ontario campuses closed by the provincial Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities late last month, could be a turning point for high student debt levels.
“Many students, since they closed their doors, find themselves saddled with all these student loans that they took out and all this debt, yet no degree. They’re completely unable to finish their programs, and they have to find a matching program somewhere else in the Ontario college system. This is a very important moment because this is where, I think, the debt strike against student loans begins,” Genosko said. “Some of those students in the U.S. And Canada are now banding together and saying, ‘We refuse to pay the debts that we’ve incurred for this highly dubious organization which has been exploiting us with the government’s…proper oversight.”
Following the shuttering of the 14 campuses, Everest Colleges Canada Inc., the subsidiary of Corinthian Colleges that operated the schools in Canada, filed for bankruptcy protection.
High tuition and student loans weren’t the only issues being discussed at the meeting last week. Another hot topic was that of finding jobs following school – or rather, the lack of them.
“Unemployment in Ontario is really high. But if you’re a young worker, it’s double that of the general population,” Denis Martins, the vice-president for young workers with the Ontario Federation of Labour, told the students in attendance, adding the youth unemployment rate is at approximately 17 per cent. “What we’re seeing more and more is young people, ages between 20 and 29, are choosing to stay at home. So, for example, in 1981, 26.9 per cent of young people stayed at home and lived with their parents. And now, in 2011, we saw almost a doubling of that number – 42 per cent.”
Martins said this growing number speaks to how hard it is for students to find a job after graduation, or at least one that pays well enough so that they can live more independently.
“To know that you’ve spent all this money and now you have nothing to show for it, you can’t get a job, there’s not enough jobs.”
For this action to work, Martins said, students at the UOIT need to look at the larger picture.
“We’re not just UOIT students. We’re students in the world, and students in the world are winning,” she said. “When they take it to the streets, they win.”