August 7, 2012

PEI’s decision to offer interest-free student loans is an acknowledgement of the importance of ensuring students are not over-burdened with debt when they finish their studies. Post-secondary studies shouldn’t be a case of two steps forward (an education), one step back (massive debt).

The Nova Scotia government has also acted to make things easier for students who receive government financial assistance.

The 2011 debt cap converts 100% of four-year undergraduate Nova Scotia student loans to grants. By 2014-15, roughly 1000 students each year will receive an average benefit approaching $10,000.

Nova Scotia has increased the grant-to-loan ratio for all other student assistance from 20% to 35%. In other words: 35% of student assistance does not have to be paid back.

In the last two years the province has also doubled the amount of employment income students are allowed to earn before becoming ineligible for assistance, increased assistance to pay for textbooks, and raised the maximum amount of funding students can access.

These changes are considerable. Still, there reamins significant room for improvement with respect to student assistance.

Over 2000 students in Nova Scotia receive less assistance each year than the government itself estimates they need. Increases to the maximum assistance level, meanwhile, have fallen short of inflation, leaving students less able to cover costs from year to year.

As well, the debt cap now only applies to students who finish their degrees in four years, and other students still deserve a reduction in their provincial debt through more grants.

The challenge to ensure post-secondary is affordable goes beyond student assistance, however.

Nova Scotia should keep the cost of education under control from the start, by stamping down tuition, as well as the backdoor, concealed fees that make education more difficult to pay for. Fees should not be allowed to rise with inflation at least until wages and student assistance do too.

The Province should support and incentivize a focus on quality in our post secondary system, to support all students succeeding particularly since the students who have the hardest time paying for their education are those who fail to complete their programmes. The government’s cuts to universities this year and last have been very damaging on this side; increasing class sizes, decreasing course offerings and reducing services on campuses.

Above all, the focus on alleviating the pressure of individualized debt can’t be allowed to serve as a smokescreen, hiding the fact that education is a public good. A more educated population, in today’s world, is a huge public gain. It’s a gain in economic terms – the 22% of Canadians with university degrees contribute over 41% of the tax base – as well as in less tangible measures, like creativity, community engagement, health and productivity. Public goods, with public gains, have public costs. Nova Scotia has important work to do to support students. It’s about giving everyone an equal chance to access quality education, so that individuals and our society can realize our full potential.