Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Student debt costs more than money

This morning I sent the following letter to all major Canadian newspapers, Maclean's Magazine, CBC Television and Radio, Carleton University, the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, the Graduate Students' Association of Canada, the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Royal Bank Student Loan Centres, Royal Bank Media Relations, the Ontario and Alberta Ministries of Education, and to my MPP/MLA and MP.

To Whom it May Concern

Just two weeks before Christmas, the Royal Bank emptied both my bank accounts of their balances. And this isnít the first time. You see, Iím one of the Canadians privileged enough to have received student loans from the Governments of Canada, Ontario and Alberta ó and unlucky enough to have done so during the period in which the Government decided that the loans would be repaid to the banks instead of to them.

Each fall I must prove to the bank that I am still a full-time student. It is my responsibility to fill out the correct forms, stand in line at the University to get these forms signed, make sure the University contacts the Ministry of Education on my behalf, and then deliver the forms in person to my bank. Each September for the past four years I have spent four or five hours doing this, another ten hours arguing with the Royal Bank when they withdraw money from my accounts because some part of this system fails, and then countless hours worrying about how to pay rent and buy food.

I did everything I was supposed to, and yet everyone I talk to says itís not their problem and nothing changes. My bank accounts are still empty and I donít know what else to do.

But let me back up a bit.

Iím currently completing the final year of the PhD programme in Sociology at Carleton University in Ottawa. When I returned to school for my doctorate degree, I did so with generous financial support from Carleton, an Ontario Graduate Scholarship and, for the past three years, a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Doctoral Fellowship. I am very honoured to have received these awards, although I think it must be said that after tuition is paid, I live below the poverty line for my efforts. Since Iíve been a full-time student for the past four years Iím exempt from making payments on my student loans. This I appreciate more than many people might imagine, since I borrowed over $50, 000 to complete my BA and MA degrees, and my monthly payments are the amount most people pay on their mortgages. I will not be able to borrow money for a home or even a car (no, I donít own one now) until my outstanding loan is paid off ó at which point I will be 45 years old!

Please donít get me wrong. Without these loans I would not have been able to attend university, and there is nothing I can think of that is more valuable to me than my education. Iíve never defaulted on my loan payments and Iím willing to accept the current terms of repayment ó although I do believe that the public could come up with more creative alternatives that would benefit everyone concerned. But right now Iím concerned with how the student loan system disadvantages people as much as it benefits us.

Maybe I shouldnít be surprised that getting a system between governments, universities and corporations to work is easier said than done ó but what we have is a mess and Iím not willing to accept that this is the best we can do. Some things are too complicated: weíre talking about a system with parts that require paper forms, and other parts that only accept electronic submissions. Other things are too simple: weíre dealing with a system that requires face-to-face communication, but prohibits individual people from making decisions and taking action. In any case, weíve created a system that places all the responsibility on the borrowers and none of the accountability on the lenders.

It doesnít take a PhD to understand that there is something wrong here and that someone needs to change it. If we truly believe ó and our current government says they do ó that bureaucratic transparency is crucial in a democracy and that a well-educated population is essential to the future social, political and economic welfare of Canada, then we need to seriously and carefully re-evaluate what an education costs, and not just in financial terms. At the end of the day, Iím afraid I will only remember what my government took from me rather than what they gave. And I donít know if Iíll be able to live with ó and give back to ó that country.

Anne Galloway

Update: I just got news that an edited version of this was selected as the CBC Letter of the Day for December 14. And we're off to a good start!


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