About 350 people with rallying cries like “Christy Clark, you’re a loan shark” took part in a protest against student debt at the legislature Wednesday.
The protesters walked down Government Street from Centennial Square to get to the legislature grounds, where Brontë Renwick-Shields recounted how she had accumulated $30,000 in debt during her time so far at the University of Victoria.
The fourth-year political science major, who chairs the UVic Students’ Society, said her debt has grown even though she is working full time for the students’ society and takes on up to three jobs during the summer break.
“I’ve still got another year of education to go, so by the time I finish I imagine I’ll be around $35,000 in debt, which is the average in B.C.,” she said.
Renwick-Shields said she estimates her student-loan payments will be about $700 a month when she graduates — higher than her rent of $575 a month. On top of that, she said, graduates have to contend with a youth unemployment rate of 13 per cent (which includes those up to age 24) and an “underemployment” rate — not finding work in line with their education — of 27 per cent.
“Students are graduating with debt and they’re not able to get into jobs where they can pay that debt back,” Renwick-Shields said.
She said things look to be even tougher in the future.
“Our generation is the most indebted in history,” she said. “And as bad as it is for us, when our little brothers and sisters head into the post-secondary system, it will be much worse.”
Renwick-Shields said the province should bring in an immediate tuition fee freeze, increase core funding for education and gradually eliminate tuition fees over the next 10 years. She said tuition is free in more than 30 countries around the world.
Advanced Education Minister Andrew Wilkinson countered in a statement that post-secondary education in B.C. is affordable “for students, families and taxpayers.”
Wilkinson said that about 70 per cent of eligible students in the public post-secondary system do not make use of loans from the B.C. government. “According to a 2014 survey by B.C. Stats, graduates who accessed interest-free government student loans throughout their studies had a median debt of $20,000.”
Wilkinson said Statistics Canada figures put the average annual undergraduate tuition in B.C. as the fourth lowest in the country at $5,305. He said that has increased 12 per cent since 2004-05, and annual tuition increases have been capped at two per cent since 2005.
Financial assistance was given to about 61,000 full-time students last year, Wilkinson said.
“For students who do access government financial services, there are a range of supports and programs in place to help them reduce their debt faster.”