Feds help students

By Chris Beauchamp

The Paul Martin government’s first speech from the throne has been seen as encouraging but also as a mixed blessing by student leaders.

The speech, read by Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson on Tue., Feb. 2, outlined the government’s post-secondary goals, including increased student loan limits and terms, new eligible expenses including computers, and raised family income thresholds “to improve access for middle income families.” The speech also promised new incentives to encourage low-income families to begin investing in the Registered Education Savings Plan “right from the birth of their children.”

Students’ Union President Jayna Gilchrist views the developments as a mixed blessing.

“If [computers] are so essential, why isn’t the university paying for them?” she asked. “It’s coming out of students’ pockets. I’m very happy parental contributions are being looked at, but they’re just putting more of a burden on students when they increase loan limits.”

The Martin government acknowledged improving loans is not enough and pledged to provide a new grant for low-income students in their first year.

“The answer to improved access must go beyond simply more generous loans, because a growing debt load poses its own limits, both psychologically and financially,” read Clarkson.

“We’re very encouraged at [the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations],” said James Kusie, National Director of CASA. “It’s great to see this new grant is targeted at low-income students, but we’ve yet to see how it’s structured and going to be implemented.”

Kusie has additional concerns about the grant being a one-time grant, noting many students quit in their first year for financial reasons. He added CASA wants to see a move towards grants.

“If we’re going to attack the root problem of tuition increases and student funding, we’re going to need federal transfer payments for post-secondary,” said Kusie.

Kusie and Gilchrist agree on the restructuring of RESPs, both commenting lower-income families are often living from paycheque to paycheque, and cannot afford to save at all.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” Kusie noted, adding he is skeptical the changes are going to help lower-income families save.

Opposition politicians have attacked the speech for being vague on details and high on rhetoric, but Kusie remains optimistic.

“I don’t think it’s in the government’s best interests to go back on what they’ve said,” he remarked. “There’s an upcoming federal election and new budget, so it will be up to us and students to hold the government accountable.”

Voicing the same criticisms brought forward by CASA, National Chairperson for the Canadian Federation of Students Ian Boyko went further, claiming the proposed grant is just the government “[taking] the heat off.”

Boyko called for dramatic increases in federal education funding.

“Offering a grant in the first year is not going to change the fact tuition fees are too high following the federal cutbacks of the 1990s,” he said. “Paul Martin has condemned students into more debt, under the rhetoric of modernization of the Canada Student Loan Program.

“The changes are merely cosmetic, and don’t represent a major policy shift.”