Students take debt protest to provincial legislature

University of Victoria students protest rising levels of student debt

More than 500 University of Victoria students are expected to protest on the front steps of the B.C. legislature Wednesday morning, calling for the provincial and federal governments to address “the unsustainable amount of student debt burdening today’s youth.”

The Rally Against Student Debt, organized by the UVic Student Society, features separate requests for the two levels of government. The B.C. government is asked to freeze tuition, increase core funding and phase out tuition fees over the next 10 years, while the Canadian government is asked to implement a federal Post-Secondary Education Act with an accompanying increase to the Canada Social Transfer for post-secondary education.

“Up until about 1995, the federal government did play a much larger role in the core funding of post-secondary education systems throughout the different provinces,” said Kenya Rogers, UVSS director of external relations, prior to the rally. “As that shift has gone more and more into the hands of the provinces, what we’ve seen is because it got downloaded onto the provinces, it eventually got downloaded onto the students and that’s where we’re seeing this debt crisis throughout the country.”

According to the UVSS, B.C. has the highest interest rates on student loans in the country, with post-secondary students facing $35,000 of debt on average when they graduate. The society said B.C. is also the only province in Canada without needs-based grants for students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

“We have a lot going on that’s contributing to why students are upset and why we wanted to have this rally,” said Rogers. “We also know there’s a provincial election coming up and we want to make sure our voices are being heard and that politicians are taking our issues into consideration when they make their platforms this year.”

The society invited Minister of Advanced Education Andrew Wilkinson and representatives from the NDP and Green Party to the rally, which is set to begin with a march from Centennial Square to the legislature. The rally was organized through the UVSS’s Education is a Right campaign, which discusses issues relating to student debt and inaccessible post-secondary education across Canada.

Rogers said similar rallies have been held throughout the country and around the world, including Quebec, Chile and South Africa.

“We’re seeing that when students get together and when they rally and talk about the things that matter, that’s when we see political will changing in our favour,” she said. “Students, if they don’t struggle with debt themselves, they know someone who does, and I think it’s a galvanizing issue for students. That’s why we wanted to do this work, because it matters to our membership.”

While the rally is just a one-day event, Rogers said she hopes it will get the attention of politicians and start a broader discussion between students and governments about the staggering costs of higher education.

“I think what we really need is leadership federally to ensure the provinces have the resources that they need to start making this change back into a publicly funded system and moving away from the corporatization that has steadily grown over the last two decades,” she said.