Madam Speaker, this bill is of personal interest to me. Before getting into my present line of work I was a teacher.
I graduated from the University of Saskatchewan. Two of my daughters are presently attending the university and I have two more at home who also plan on going to the university. You can see I have a deep personal interest and understanding of university and for how much an education costs. I know that 25 years ago the cost was high and I know what it costs today. I am deeply concerned about the cost in the future.
I have spent much of my working life preparing students for university. Some of them have chosen to go directly from high school into the work world, but some have gone to other post-secondary institutions, including universities.
Since statistics consistently show that individuals with university degrees have considerably larger lifetime incomes, I tried my best to convince as many of my students as possible to go to university. I often explained to them that for every day they spent in high school they could expect to earn $200 extra in their lifetime. In that way, by getting that higher education I hoped it would provide some incentive for them to continue on with what they were studying. Unfortunately not all of my students wanted to go; they just could not afford it.
Even though this bill will increase the amount of loan money available to students by 57 per cent, the fact remains that the discriminatory aspects of the Canada student loans program still remain.
This bill, as in the past, will require students and their families to take a means test. This means those students whose parents are well off are ineligible for student loans. Even if those students receive no assistance from their parents and have to go it alone, they are ineligible.
Low income taxpayers are especially discriminated against as they are less apt to send their children to university. Yet their taxes are used to pay for post-secondary education, including the government's share of the student loans program which is $479 million this year alone.
By 1990 two-thirds of the adult population did not possess post-secondary credentials. This means that two-thirds of the people are helping to pay the post-secondary education costs of the other third who, as stated before, earn considerably higher incomes. We have the poor subsidizing the rich. To put things in plain English, this bill will perpetuate a problem which has existed since 1964. We always have had this kind of thing, the poor subsidizing the rich for their education.
The most serious area of discrimination is in the repayment of student loans which we find onerous and rigid. The current program discriminates against the poor and unemployed by forcing them to pay back their loans at the same level as those who are gainfully employed and/or those students who end up earning far more money.
The repayment plan is inflexible because it forces former students to begin repaying their loans six or eight months after graduation, irrespective of the borrower's income. This is not only unfair but it also results in unacceptable default rates on the loans and increased collection costs, all of which cost taxpayers more and more money.
Reformers maintain that the government cannot just look at one part of the problem of funding for post-secondary education, namely student loans, without looking at the problem of total government support for post-secondary education in its entirety.
Total university enrolment has grown by 42 per cent between 1980 and 1991. In 1980 the government invested an average of $7,700 per full time student to cover university operating expenses. By 1992 this figure had fallen in constant dollar terms to under $6,700, a 13.5 per cent drop. Some provinces have recently announced some absolute cuts in operating grants for universities.
At a time when we need to become more competitive in the international community, when we need to upgrade our skills, when we have to exploit those areas at which we are better at providing well trained people for the workforce, it is not the time to be cutting back on university funding. In fact we should be doing the opposite. We should be trying to take advantage of our global economy.
Suffice it to say with higher budget deficits, with the increasing debt load we are experiencing and a higher and higher percentage of tax revenue needed just to pay the interest on the debt, the budget squeeze for our universities is going to get worse before it gets better.
We need to decide what is important in this country. Higher education is important and we need to preserve that. We need to preserve health care. There are certain priorities we must maintain. We cannot do it all for everyone. This government has to decide what its priorities are and higher education should be one of those.
With declining income from federal and provincial governments, universities have sought other sources of revenue. While revenues from gifts and donations and non-government grants increased an average of 42 per cent during the 1980s, they still account for less than 1 per cent of the general operating income. All of those areas account for less than 1 per cent.
Tuition fees have played a considerably more important role in helping to offset the decline in government revenue. Tuition fees have increased 60 per cent since 1980. In 1980 tuition fees accounted for 13 per cent of general operating revenue for universities and in 1992 they were a source of 22 per cent, a substantial increase.
In 1991 the Smith Commission of Inquiry on Canadian University Education concluded: "A preoccupation with underfunding pervades every campus. The effect is extremely negative". It concluded that: "There is room for increasing tuition fees, provided there is an effective proper student assistance plan"-and here is the key phrase-"with automatic income contingent repayment".
The previous speaker asked for positive suggestions. We are going to give him one of those positive suggestions at this time.
What I would like to explore in more detail is this whole concept of student loans with a built in, automatic income contingent repayment plan. The Reform Party supports a move in this direction for three basic reasons: there would be a reduced cost to the taxpayer if we implemented this; there would be greater flexibility and fairness for students; and the maintenance of high quality educational services would take place. Those are three very strong arguments as to why we should consider income contingent loans.
The reduced cost to the taxpayer is really an important one at this time because we cannot load down our taxpayers with more debt. There is also greater flexibility and greater fairness for our students. They would have more choices. They would have access to funds which they previously did not have. It would allow them to get into fields they would like to pursue. With this increased, or this change in funding, the educational institutions would also have more flexibility.
In fact on April 29, Motion No. 291 was introduced by the leader of the Reform Party which asked the government to consider amending the Canada Student Loans Act to include an income contingent repayment system for the very reasons I have just mentioned. The hon. member for Medicine Hat outlined some of the details of how an automatic income contingent repayment plan would work but I think it bears repeating.
Simply put, an income contingent loan repayment scheme for post-secondary education would allow students to pay back their student loans over a period of time based on their annual income and using the income tax machinery to monitor and collect student loans. That is already in place.
Here in a nutshell is how it would work. All students would be eligible for a student loan. The means test would be eliminated. Upon graduation a student would begin to pay back their student loan. The loan repayment plan would be linked to the student's earnings or the ability to pay. Precisely how much a former student paid back would vary from year to year, depending on his or her salary level. That seems to me to be a very fair way to collect the money. The specific amount would be set as a percentage of income. It would be paid back through the income tax system. We would not have to set up a new collection system. If a person's income did not reach a specified amount, the payment would be deferred until their earnings came up.
This repayment system depends entirely on the supply of accurate income statements long after the individual has left the institution of higher learning. Revenue Canada would have to supply the necessary data automatically. It could be done cheaply through the whole income tax system and through statements those people would supply. This would necessitate the recording of student borrowers with the tax department of course, and the inclusion of social insurance numbers on student loan forms.
With the full details of each student including future incomes and movement within Canada, the income tax authorities would act as the primary monitor of subsequent loan collections. Income tax is already doing this now in the case of defaults on student loans when they apply tax refunds toward the student loan debt. That is a positive suggestion and I hope the government is listening.
Income contingent repayment would save taxpayers money. It would save money by drastically reducing the number of defaulted loans. It would save money between the simple interest paid by student borrowers and the accumulated or compound interest paid by the government. It would dramatically reduce the collection fees on defaulted loans.
Between 1985 and 1990, $44 million in student loans were written off for a total write-off proportion of nearly 5 per cent. The value of the defaults accumulated on the federal books since 1984 is rapidly approaching $1 billion. Collection agencies are now being hired to collect the money which in itself involves substantial costs.
With the total value of default now over $900 million the potential earnings for the collection agencies is estimated to range from $135 million to $170 million. Those are the fees just to collect these. Income contingent repayment could be imple-
mented immediately at far less cost, thereby improving the collection success rate with less frustration and aggravation for students and for government.
In 1993 the Association for Universities and Colleges of Canada developed a proposal called "A New Student Assistance Plan" based on a concept of income contingent repayment. It recently made a presentation to the Standing Committee on Human Resources Development as part of the phase one consultations the minister has on his review of social programs.
The materials provided by the association list the benefits of its proposed student loan income contingent plan. I want to go through three areas of benefits that it lists. I hope the government is listening because this is a key group that has put these forth.
First of all, there are the benefits for students. Students would have increased accessibility and increased availability. It would not depend on many factors that are now put into this whole system. They would have increased access. It would be for all students. That is a very key advantage.
Second, there would be a more fair method of repayment. The student loan would emphasize the student's ability to pay. It would not automatically come into effect six or eight months after they graduated from university. It would depend on their income level. That is a much more fair method.
It would provide student assistance to individuals who do not currently qualify for means tested student assistance. It would be available for everyone. It would provide improved benefits for students in the face of rising educational costs. That is a reality. We must face the fact that costs are increasing.
The second area explained as being of benefit is a benefit for the universities. It would allow universities more flexibility in setting tuition fees, including differential fees by programs. For example, someone in medicine who could expect a higher return after graduation could have higher tuition fees. Another benefit for the university is that it would assist universities in maintaining accessibility in the face of declining government funding. Government funding continues to go down. It would help the universities in that area. It would help universities to meet their mission of providing high quality education for all qualified students.
Of course the third broad area of benefit would be the benefit for government. It explains it this way. It would provide an avenue for the federal government to continue to invest in higher education and to support equality of opportunity across Canada.
Second, it would largely eliminate the problem of loan defaults since students repay only when they reach a specified income level. Right now 70 per cent of loan defaults occur within 12 to 18 months of the students completing their studies. It would address that problem.
It would eliminate the need for and the cost of collection agencies to collect delinquent student loans by using the income tax system to collect loan payments.
It would also be of benefit to government in that it would help the government meet its objectives of encouraging life long learning.
Finally, it would permit more fairness in the way governments provide student assistance.
There are those who oppose income contingent repayment, but I do not think their arguments hold up under serious examination. For example, the Canadian Association of University Teachers made a submission to the Standing Committee on Human Resources Development. It dismissed income contingent repayment without even attempting to compare it to the status quo. It said that under income contingent repayment, the total cost of education will be greatest for those who take the longest time to pay and that wealthy students will pay the least. It failed to consider that both of these statements are also true under the present system.
Another complaint is that income contingent repayment would serve as a disincentive for the federal and provincial governments to maintain their grant levels once tuition fees begin to rise. This assertion completely ignores the reality of the past 15 years during which students have assumed a greater and greater share of their education costs as a result of financial constraints imposed by both the federal and provincial governments on these institutions. That is reality. That is the status quo.
These increases in tuition have taken place in the absence of a single income contingent repayment plan and for reasons which have nothing to do with student loan programs. With increasing enrolments the government deficit, debt crisis and declining financial support from both levels of government, it is obvious we cannot just bury our heads in the sand and hope that the money genie is going to appear and save our schools of higher education. Let us face reality.
The problem is serious and the problem has to be addressed now. This bill does not really address the problem. I call on the government to embark on a complete overhaul of the financial support system now serving post-secondary institutions and students.
This government continues to tinker with programs. We need a complete overhaul. We cannot continue to just make small adjustments. I believe the federal government's established programs financing should be completely replaced with the voucher system as described by the hon. member for Medicine Hat. The student loans legislation should be amended as moved by the hon. member for Calgary Southwest to provide for automatic income contingent repayment. We do not need another pilot project, we need an income contingent repayment plan for students now.