Debt levels give rise to student protest

About two dozen students from Okanagan College in Penticton join in national day of protest over rising tuition fees

Okanagan College students shout and wave their signs from atop the old railway bridge over the Channel Parkway Wednesday

Okanagan College students shout and wave their signs from atop the old railway bridge over the Channel Parkway Wednesday

College students from 20 years ago would probably have found some of the slogans painted on the signs carried by students this week eerily familiar.

Student debt has been a problem for many years, but according to the students involved in the “All Out” national day of protest on Wednesday, the problem is reaching epic proportions.

“Students across the country are racking up an enormous student loan debt. Canadian students are almost at $15 billion in debt, so we are calling on the federal government to do something about that,” said Ross Saunders, the local chair of the Okanagan College Students’ Union.

Waving signs with slogans like “Drop Student Debt,” “Reduce Tuition Fees” and “Build Futures”, about 25 Okanagan College students marched through the rain to the old railway bridge over the Channel Parkway on Wednesday. When they got there, they were greeted by several enthusiastic honks from passing motorists as they hung a large banner, reading “Education is a Right”, from the walkway.

These protestors, united with their counterparts at campuses across the country, are thing to raise public awareness about the problems facing the students, calling on both federal and provincial governments to get involved and work together to reduce tuition fees, drop student debt and increase funding for public post-secondary education.

“We are calling on the provincial government to increase core funding to colleges. Right now, colleges are not funded at the rate of inflation, and without these inflationary funds, colleges are forced to pass that cost on to students in the form of tuition fees. Okanagan College is the highest priced public college in B.C,” said Saunders. “B.C. has a very serious tuition fee problem, and Premier Christy Clark shouldn’t ignore it any longer.”

Tuition fees have more than doubled in the last decade, pushing student debt to record highs. B.C. ranks dead last among the provinces in grants and other student aid disbursements, according to the students’ union.

“We are also calling on the federal government to help deal with this. We are asking for a post-secondary education act, mirroring the health act,” said Saunders. “So instead of just a block transfer fund that we get from the federal government to the provincial government, we are asking for a specific dedicated amount of money for the purpose of education.”

Earlier this year, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives published a study showing that post-secondary graduates pay more than the full cost of their diploma or degree in taxes after graduation.

According to the students’ union, the conclusions reached in the study mean that students and their families are overcharged for post-secondary education, and tuition fees should be reduced.

“That will help make education more accessible for everyone, which is something we want,” said Saunders. “Because right now, education is not accessible for everybody in the country.”

“Student debt in B.C. is at a record high,” said Zach Crispin, chair of the Canadian Federation of Students for B.C. “Students and their families are sick of governments squabbling over jurisdiction. We demand the provincial and federal government work together to eliminate students’ debt.”

The Okanagan College Students’ Union represents over 5,000 students at the Salmon Arm, Penticton and Kelowna campuses of Okanagan College. The Canadian Federation of Students is composed of 600,000 students from over 80 universities and colleges in all 10 provinces.