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Game of Loans

Students aren't customers and education isn’t a product available to sell

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Image Credits: Andrea Fu
The success myth

Many of us grow up with the assumption that education is the road to success. I certainly did.

“Go to school, get a good education, and you’ll get a good job” is what I heard quite often. Now, in my last year of university, I’m wondering: was it all worth it?

Studies have shown that unemployment among university graduates has been on the rise for years, and the average Canadian student is leaving university over $28,000 in debt. Some are now calling us Generation Boomerang, as it is becoming harder for young people to find success and launch themselves into adulthood. Some of us are even moving back home because living independently is so expensive. The idea that a degree can buy you a perfect life is now a myth — it just doesn’t mean what it used to.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not dismissing the importance of education. I understand that there are many fields that require you to have at the very least an undergraduate degree. I am also a strong supporter of lifelong learning and continuous development, no matter what profession one chooses to pursue. What bothers me is the fact that universities nowadays behave more and more like businesses, rather than academic institutions. It’s this shift that has led to the devaluing of our degrees despite rising price tags.

SFU, like other institutions, is no longer about bettering yourself, growing your understandings, and getting on a good career path. It’s about signing big cheques to make someone else’s bottom line. This has a major impact on the new generation of students who struggle to pay for their education, not knowing what the results of their four-, five-, or six-year investment will be.

Til debt do us part

Tuition and student fees are two things undergraduate students try to avoid thinking about. Since I started school four years ago, I’ve noticed that my tuition fees have increased drastically. I’m paying roughly the same amount now for part-time studies, as I did in first year for full-time studies. Ever since the Campbell government lifted the tuition freezes in 2002, the price tag on our degrees has risen.

Unfortunately, I am also an international student. In Canada, this means higher costs per course unit and ineligibility for student loans. At SFU, like many universities in Canada, international students are paying up to four times more money — and the numbers keep rising much faster than for domestic students. Two years ago, SFU shocked students by announcing that international students would face a 10 percent tuition increase a year for three years in a row. The increase in fees is not exclusive to SFU: the average tuition increase for international students this year was 6.5 percent — two times higher than it was for Canadian students, according to Statistics Canada.

As the Canadian Federation of Students reports, Canada started implementing differential tuition fees in the late 1970s to give institutions additional funding. Today this practice is not only common — it’s standard. Both international and domestic students became the victims of major tuition increases because of a funding drought.

What this means for students is simple: our degrees are being commodified so that we can help meet the university’s bottom line. While on-campus groups like the SFSS have advocated for more affordable education, we have seen little success.

This is one shortfall in modern academia. Universities are acting less like higher places of learning and more like businesses. It’s been more than a decade since the tuition freeze was lifted, and one thing is clear: we need a new protection against rising costs. An entire generation has gone through post-secondary education on loans that will take years, if not decades, to pay back.

This game of loans leads me to believe that we need change.

Did I have alternatives?

Despite universities’ reputations for being money suckers, young adults are still choosing to attend.

Thinking back, I sometimes wonder if I would have made a wiser investment of my time and money by entering the workforce prior to pursuing higher education. My story is not as bad as it could be: I got through my education with financial support from my parents and with blood, sweat, and tears to maintain a high enough GPA for scholarships.

But I went to university while I was still exploring my career options, and did not think too much about my financial position. Taking some time off before pursuing university would definitely have helped me be more intentional about my career and my future before spending a fortune on it. While I’m happy I have this education, I’ll always have ‘what ifs’ about the alternatives I never explored.

Between the growing costs, the turbulent job market, and the uncertainty so many young new grads are feeling, it’s time to reevaluate the system. Generation Boomerang has been thrown back and forth too much. Something has to change if we want to see Canadians continue to choose advanced education in the future, and if we want to see students from around the world come here to do the same.

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