Mr. Speaker, I too appreciate this opportunity, as the Official Opposition critic for training and youth, to state the position of our party with regard to Motion M-291 put forward by the Leader of the Reform Party
This motion, as you may recall, reads as follows: "That, in the opinion of this House, the government should consider the advisability of amending the Canada Student Loans Act to include an income contingent loan repayment system [-]"
On the face of it, the concept of repayment based on income seems to be to the students' advantage. If that were the intent, there would, of course, be very wide support for this motion on this side.
But since no clear definition of this concept exists as of yet, it can easily be used for other purposes.
As it stands, the motion tabled by the leader of the Reform Party justifies, in our view, the approach advocated by this government, that is to say to have the students defray the costs of higher education.
There is no need for me to emphasize the fact that, at more than $500 billion, our national debt is huge, but the point can easily be made that students are not to blame for this situation. It is not the doing of students pursuing higher education. I will not get into a debate on who is to blame. Let us just say that the blame does not rest only with this government. As we know, this debt has been spiralling, particularly since 1979. It started under the Liberals and continued with the Conservatives and is still growing today.
Just now, I heard the member of the governing party say something that is very wrong. He said that responsibility for higher education is shared by the federal and provincial governments. The member has misread the Constitution, which clearly states that education and higher education are a provincial responsibility. My purpose today is not to debate the Constitution, but it is still worth recalling because even members of this House seem not to know that fact.
Despite that, we know that so far the federal government has used the spending power, which is also in the Constitution, to invade this field. Since some of Quebec's taxes have been used until now to finance higher education under the federal government's authority, it was normal that we tried to obtain our share, but again, keep in mind that it is in provincial jurisdiction.
Until now, we in Quebec have used our right to opt out with financial compensation, but this is not the discussion that I want to get into today.
We believe that we must debate ICLR more thoroughly before setting up such a plan. Nevertheless, we oppose any use of ICLR if the ultimate goal is to make students pay the full cost of higher education, because tuition fees are already rising outrageously. Students' indebteness is also growing at an alarming rate, and
not just the national debt. Students' personal debt is already rising fast.
Indeed, students have great difficulty repaying their loans once they graduate. According to an article that appeared in the October 18 edition of the Globe and Mail , the federal government is now owed close to $1 billion by former students unable to repay their loans. The new financial assistance law passed on June 23 will allow us to compensate by turning to banks, whose customary generosity is well known. These banks will not hesitate to recover students' debts.
Here is another statistic: former students unable to pay for their studies make up 10 per cent of personal bankruptcy cases. What do they want to do now? They want to increase these students' debt load. Where are we heading, Mr. Speaker?
Although figures are often contradictory, according to the Committee on Human Resources, the average Canadian student owes $11,000. At first sight, this does not seem very high, but it is the average and we know that the average includes those students who do not complete their college or university studies. This means that, at least in Quebec, the $11,000 average debt would be closer to $16,000 or $17,000 for those about to receive their B.A., and some even talk about a higher figure.
They mention an average of $21,000 for students with a master's degree and $37,000 for those with a Ph.D. The Federation of Students thinks that these figures will double. We can see what kind of debt load this could lead to.
I do not think that the purpose of this motion is to help students. If we read paragraph ( a ) of the motion tabled by the leader of the Reform Party, we can see clearly that such is not the case. Its first objective is to ``reduce the cost to taxpayers of financing post-secondary education''. The goal is not to help students but to reduce the deficit. So we, of course, disagree with the motion as it now stands.
A closer look at the text of the motion gives us a better understanding of the real motives of this party which, above all, wants to cut costs. I said that in paragraph (a) , the reason was to reduce the cost to taxpayers of financing post-secondary education. Like the Liberal government, the Reform Party recommends reducing the government's financial commitments to post-secondary education. Its purpose in presenting this motion is, first of all, to reduce government spending.
Students will have to pay higher tuition fees as a result of government cutbacks. The Reform Party and the Liberal government describe income contingent loan repayment as a blessing for students, but they omit the fact that this measure comes at a time of major cuts in financing for post-secondary institutions. The blessing is rather dubious.
We are against cuts in post-secondary education. If the government wants to withdraw from an area that is an exclusively provincial jurisdiction, it should do so across the board, not just financially. The government seems to want to control more while spending less. There is a contradiction here. We agree the system for repayment of student loans should be changed, but not in the way suggested by the Leader of the Reform Party or by the Liberal government under its current social security reform.
Occasionally, references are made to countries like Sweden, Australia and New Zealand, which have introduced income contingent loan repayment systems. We know that New Zealand was forced to do so by the IMF. However, people tend to forget that the position of students and post-secondary education financing differs from one country to the next. It is therefore very difficult to apply in this country what is being done elsewhere, especially since the ICLR systems used in these countries are relatively recent and according to initial results have shown that they are not successful.
Closer to home, a pilot project in Ontario had 1,000 openings and only 75 people took advantage of this opportunity, 75 out of a potential 1,000. Why? Because, students, the Canadian Federation of Students and the Quebec Federation, all the major student federations are against the system. Why? Because it only covers loans, and there are no provisions for bursaries.
In Quebec, we have a bursary program that is very popular. Since I only have one minute left, I see the Chairman of the Human Resources Committee, and I happen to be a member of this committee which will organize wide-ranging consultations across the country. I think this is a concept that could be discussed, but I think we would need some in-depth consultation before getting it on the road.