Education Minister’s student debt comments ignite backlash

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- CBC News

The BC Minister of Advanced Education, Andrew Wilkinson, made controversial comments about student debt on February 23 on CBC Radio’s The Early Edition.

The Minister said that “70 per cent of students go through their higher education with no debt whatsoever.” The comments garnered criticism from a number of groups, including the Canadian Federation of Students BC (CFSBC).

CFSBC chairperson Zachary Crispin told The Peak that Wilkinson had “misrepresented the fact that we have a student debt crisis in our province.”

Simon Fraser Student Society (SFSS) president Chardaye Bueckert also commented on Wilkinson’s statement: “That statistic isn’t in line with what the government’s own data says, but it also doesn’t necessarily look at all the factors that should be considered when one looks at student debt.”

Minister Wilkinson sat down with The Peak to clarify his comments, saying that his statistics referred to the number of people indebted through provincial loans only. He clarified, “We don’t know what student’s credit cards say. We don’t know what their relationship is with their parents financially. We only have the comprehensive datasets for provincial student aid.”

The 2013 BC Outcomes Survey indicated that 51 per cent of students leave post-secondary debt-free. In addition, Wilkinson pinned the median amount of student debt at $20,000 (for university programs). For comparison, the BC Outcomes survey indicated that 37 per cent of students owe more than $30,000.

Additionally, aw 2012 SFU survey of 15,000 graduating students found that the average amount of debt totalled $24,600.

Substantial increases in international student tuition have been the cause of much anxiety over student debt at SFU. Unlike domestic student tuition, which is capped at two per cent per year increases, there are no such caps for international fees, which have risen by 10 per cent each year since 2013.

According to the SFSS website, an international undergraduate student who began studies in 2012/2013 now pays $2,143 more in tuition per term than when they began.

“International students are a large international market in which we compete,” Wilkinson argued. “Universities and colleges have clearly found their niche in the international marketplace and the pricing of the product they are offering is up to them.”

Crispin disagreed. “It’s pretty clear in the government’s plan [that] the government sees international students as a revenue source more than students who are here to be educated,” he stated.

President Bueckert noted that while there are no further raises planned for international fees, the university has “respectfully declined” a proposal by the SFSS to freeze international undergraduate fees for five years.

When asked about methods to address student debt, Minister Wilkinson argued that interest-free loans and grants form part of a “pretty thorough program of student support.”

However, as Bueckert noted, BC has the highest student loan interest rates in the country. She also pointed out “only 39 per cent of assessed need for bursaries is met through the current [SFU] system.”

Manoj Bhakthan, director of SFU Financial Aids and Awards, explained, “We’ve looked at providing further opportunities in terms of bursary funding for international students.” He also added that more funding for financial aid could “increase the dollar value” of opportunities like scholarships, awards, and bursaries.

Bhakthan urges students to use the financial aid advising office to get more information on opportunities. “The more information a student has, the more they are empowered,” he said.