On February 25th, the government of Ontario made headlines by announcing a reform of its financial aid system, promising free tuition to students from low-income families supplied through non-repayable grants. The announcement has since received its fair share of criticism, with people voicing concern over the fine print and, in some cases, an over-inflation of university graduates—supposedly rendering degrees pointless. Regardless, I remain optimistic about the gesture. To me, it’s a sign that someone’s actually listening.
Four years and thousands of dollars ago, my friend and I skipped class in order to join the Canadian Federation of Students’ (CFS) “Drop Fees” protest as they marched to Queen’s Park. Still green in the ear with regard to concepts like “interest” and “inflation,” all we knew then was that our tuition was worth getting angry about. I don’t think we really expected anything to happen as a result of waving around placards, though, and our student activism quickly fell by the wayside.
It wasn’t until I was studying in France a year or so later that student loans became a true topic of concern to me. While abroad, I befriended students from countries who were enjoying manageable, if not nonexistent, debt loads. When it was my turn to describe Canadian student loans, their eyes grew wide with disbelief. As the year progressed, I noticed a huge difference between the European student experience and that which I have become familiar with in Canada. The students were able to fully immerse themselves in their studies without worrying that their program of choice would haunt them financially. There was little to no talk of “useless degrees,” and, after graduation, they were able to kick-start their lives with an ease that’s impossible for anyone with 20-60 thousand dollars worth of debt hanging over their heads. It was a parallel universe where students seemed to enjoy being students, and where they weren’t forced to persevere for the purpose of being able to repay the loans incurred by choosing to stay in school.
As my studies continued in Canada, I, like many students, had to start working multiple jobs to keep my finances afloat. With graduation on the horizon, every extra cent I make is being thrown at my loan so that I can alleviate it as much as possible before the interest starts to pile up. That means full-time hours while trying to make it through the last of my courses. I no longer take any pleasure in being a university student. All I feel now is a pervasive sense of dread as I think about whether or not my degree will be valued in the work force. When I applied to Ryerson as a low-income student with dreams of not having to struggle to make ends meet the way my parents did, I was told that I would be able to easily pay off whatever accumulated debt I had after four years because a bachelor’s degree would allow me to get a high-paying job. Now on the brink of graduation, the same thing is being said about a master’s degree. If I’ve learned anything in the last few years, it’s that the constant demand for credentials paired with a lack of governmental support has led to fluffed degrees intended to check boxes, not to educate. Because of that, I need some time to think seriously about whether or not I want to go to grad school. At this point, it just doesn’t seem worth it.
I’m optimistic about the government’s promises, because I hope that it’s a step, however small, towards a country that appreciates how infinitely beneficial it is to provide access to education for students of all classes. I want my children to have the freedom to choose their educational pathways based on their passion for the subject matter, not simply on what’s going to result in the highest paycheque. I want them to be able to change their minds without worrying about how much money they’ve already thrown down the drain. I don’t want them to know how debt feels before they’ve even had a chance to know how a career feels. I know it’s possible, but it’s contingent on making sure that our voices are heard. Unlike my friend and me, many of those present at the protest we attended in 2012 stayed true to the cause and, as a result, a lot of their requests were reflected in the budget. The budget announcement is merely a drop in the bucket in the grand scheme of things, but it’s a sign that change can be inspired when we continue to speak up. Agreeing that education is important and that it should be a right is one thing, but we have a lot of work to do before we truly have something to show for it.