Editorial: The driving cause of student debt

Editorials Opinions
Graphic by Emily Thiessen (Graphics Editor)
Graphic by Emily Thiessen (Graphics Editor)

In the eyes of the Clark government, students are a whiny bunch. They get their impractical, useless arts degrees, then live off the hard, honest work of their parents (who smartened up and pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps) or the government. The latest furor over B.C.’s proposal to stop issuing drivers licenses to those who miss too many student loan payments could be dismissed as yet more whining, but the true source of frustration might be too hard for this government to swallow.

Many governments have started to view universities as vocational schools. Programs that don’t meet that standard are belittled, and those who can’t immediately find a job clearly chose the wrong degree. The B.C. government is now tying 25 per cent of all university funding to ideologically influenced labour projections, while the financial burden is being shifted from the state to the individual, who should “take responsibility.”

While our economy is driven by people who know how to accomplish profitable tasks, our society requires an engaged and thoughtful citizenry to thrive. This is harder to justify in a press release or in a 15-second soundbite, but this lofty, some would say naïve goal, should not be abandoned. After all, everyone runs on principles. In a Vancouver Sun profile, Christy Clark spoke lovingly of her parents, Jim and Mavis, who taught their daughter that fiscal responsibility was a moral imperative. A not-unreasonable application of those same values might lead Clark to consider ensuring that today’s youth aren’t saddled with a truly unpayable environmental debt, but we digress.

Compelling students to pay back their loans by refusing to issue drivers’ licenses is a barrier and an insult. The Minister of Advanced Education himself, Andrew Wilkinson, is both a medical doctor and a lawyer, an Oxonian by way of the Rhodes Scholarship. One would hope that someone as learned as him would value critical thought and inquiry, and appreciate the benefit of providing comparable opportunities to those who want it without a crushing debt load. B.C.’s student loan interest rate of prime plus 2.5 per cent is the highest in the nation; it makes no sense to hinder someone at the start of their working life. Even if such a load affects a minority of students as the minister says, it does not excuse it.

Those who don’t pay back their student loans when they can afford to are few and far between. If they have that attitude, B.C. shouldn’t be too concerned about accommodating them. But, the province shouldn’t base their policy on caricature, and they should apply the critical thinking skills they hopefully acquired in their own educations to determine the root of student discontent, even if it’s hard. Education should not be classified as either a right or a privilege, but rather as a crucial ingredient for a society that aspires to do better. Punishing the “lazy” might be popular, but lazy policymaking is a damn sight more dangerous.