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Funding University Education

A financially oppressed university graduate is going to court so she can have her right to declare bankruptcy and be free of her student loan obligations. Her contention is that the law that forbids declaring bankruptcy on student loans is in violation of the charter of rights and freedoms. She has significant support from the university community across Canada.

We can probably argue forever whether she is justified or not in her position, but one argument does need to be addressed: if she is successful, how will future university students find funding?

It does not take a university degree to see that if she does get her way; financial institutions are going to back away from loaning students money in the future. Why should they take the risk that 75% or 50% or even 25% of students will take advantage of such a legal precedent to relieve themselves of their loans? Students who do not have the wealth to pay for their education but have the ethics to live up to their obligations will not be able to find financing. In essence, they will not be able to go university. Is this what the challenger and her supporters to the existing rules want?

When I was going to university, I had the opportunity to work four months on the drilling rigs to pay for eight months of school. In those days, tuition took about two weeks of those wages.

Today, tuition takes about five weeks of a rig worker’s pay, which tells me the times are not the same even if a student can find a high paying job between semesters. Loans seem to be the only answer for middle class families to put their kids through university — or so it seems.

Sixteen years ago, I wrote a letter to Maclean’s magazine about how to fund university education. The editor liked my ideas enough to publish it, and many Canadians saw this idea. I suggested that the student enters into a contract with the university. From the university, the student would receive free tuition and perhaps room and board and perhaps even a small stipend. In return, the student would agree to pay a small percentage of his or her income directly to the university for the rest of his or her life.

The advantages of such a system are quite obvious. The student only needs to prove academic capabilities to stay in university and should graduate with few, if any, loans. Universities would have a sustainable source of funding within a generation and be free to build their programs and culture without government or corporate interference. And taxpayers in one jurisdiction will not be paying for the education of students who move their newly acquired education to benefit citizens of another jurisdiction.

Sixteen years later, far too many students still feel that government should pay for their entire education, and governments are still subsidizing banks to take student loans, and student loans are still somewhat oppressive for too many students when they do finally graduate. And although the student leaders, university leaders, and government leaders have changed faces many times, we are still having exactly the same debate we were having 16 years ago.

This is the peril of being an ordinary citizen. Common sense ideas are likely to go nowhere unless one wants to immerse oneself in the rough-and-tumble world of party politics or swim in a bloody pool of shark like careerists to gain influence. Why would we want to hand this kind of world to our grandchildren?

Published in The Brooks & County Chronicle 2001

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