Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the opportunity to speak about why we need to preserve the integrity of the Canada student loans program and ensure access to higher education in Canada by voting against Bill C-236.
In the Speech from the Throne the Government of Canada pledged to build a Canada where the creativity and talents of all Canadians are maximized. The role of government is to give Canadians the tools and opportunities they need to make the most of their lives. We understand that investing in the skills of our citizens is simply one of the best investments we can make as a nation.
By 2007, 70% of the new jobs in Canada will need some form of post-secondary education, whether it is a trade, a college diploma or degree, but as many as 42% of working age Canadians lack the necessary literacy and other essential skills to meet these requirements. Recognizing the urgency of the situation, the Government of Canada has made skills development and learning a priority.
Certainly part of the answer lies in opening up access to post-secondary education. Among OECD countries Canada has the highest rate of participation in post-secondary education. Canada has one of the most effective student financial assistance programs in the world.
Through the Canada student loans program we are doing much to help students cope with the rising cost of post-secondary education. Over the last 40 years the Canada student loans program has earned respect across the country by helping countless students meet the cost of post-secondary education. About 330,000 Canadian students a year currently benefit from this program, which last year lent $1.6 million to students in need.
We recognize that more must be done to improve access to education. More must be done to help students cope with the rising costs and high debt load upon graduation. That is why we have made improvements to the Canada student loans program.
Members may recall that the 10 year prohibition on discharging student loans was introduced in 1998 as a means of improving the integrity and accountability of our student loans program in Canada. By increasing the prohibition on discharging loans to 10 years and introducing improved measures to assist students in financial difficulty, we were able to significantly reduce the number of students declaring bankruptcy in Canada.
If a student goes bankrupt, the student loan stays on the books for 10 years, allowing the student time to settle down, find a job and begin making payments. The Government of Canada recognizes that it is wrong to penalize students with bankruptcy and a bad credit rating right after completing their studies when their potential for earning has yet to be realized.
Over the years the Government of Canada has made significant improvements to the Canada student loans program. New debt relief measures were introduced to help students manage their debt and avoid declaring bankruptcy. These include interest relief and debt reduction in repayment. Interest relief is a debt management measure which provides students who are experiencing temporary financial difficulty in repaying their student loans with up to 54 months of relief on loan repayments. While students are on interest relief, they are not required to make any payments of either the principal or interest on their loans. During that time the Government of Canada pays the monthly interest on the loan.
Debt reduction in repayment is a targeted debt management measure. It is available to help students who have exhausted interest relief, but continue to remain in financial difficulty.
Debt reduction in repayment reduces the student's loan principal by up to $10,000 and aims to lower the monthly loan payment to an affordable level relative to his or her income. In the event that a student continues to remain in financial difficulty following this reduction, he or she may be eligible for two additional reductions of up to $5,000 each in 12 month intervals.
In implementing debt management measures, our goal was to encourage more student borrowers to make use of them as an alternative to declaring bankruptcy and creating bad credit histories.
These programs have been a tremendous success. They have helped many Canadian students avoid declaring bankruptcy and get back on their feet again.
Since their introduction in 1998, more student borrowers are taking advantage of these debt management measures. In fact, in 2001-02 over 140,000 student borrowers accessed the interest relief program at a cost of $77 million.
In the 2003 federal budget we introduced new measures to allow borrowers who declared bankruptcy to be eligible for new loans, interest relief and debt reduction in repayment. These new amendments came into effect last May. This change has helped literally hundreds of Canadian students complete their studies.
New changes to debt management measures were introduced in the last federal budget. They include measures to increase the income threshold used to determine eligibility for interest relief by 5%, and to increase the total amount of debt reduction in repayment from $20,000 to $26,000.
Bill C-236 asks Parliament to revert to the two year rule used before 1998. We know from experience that the two year rule simply does not work. It does not give Canadian students the time they need to become established, find well paying jobs and begin making payments on their loans.
Before changes were made to the bankruptcy rules, more than 53,000 students declared bankruptcy between 1990 and 1997 at a staggering cost of $445 million to the government in unpaid student loans.
By extending the period to 10 years, the Government of Canada has been successful in helping to curb the number of bankruptcies of recent student borrowers. Only 5,945 student borrowers declared bankruptcy between 1998 and 2000. During that same period approximately 230,000 borrowers received interest relief and over 900 borrowers benefited from debt reduction in repayment.
As a matter of fact, high bankruptcy rates between 1990 and 1996 were the catalyst for the government's decision to introduce new measures to lower student bankruptcies, such as the 10 year rule.
Allowing students time to make their way in the world after graduating is the right thing to do. That is why I am urging members to vote against Bill C-236.