Culture & Conversation

Tipping Point: Student Debt

Students occupy UQÀM in 2012. Photo by Mario Jean (all rights reserved)

Students occupy UQÀM in 2012. Photo by Mario Jean (all rights reserved)

Rover features an exclusive excerpt from Generation Rising: The Time of the Québec Student Spring, by editor and writer Shawn Katz (Fernwood Publishing, 2015)

The scale of the youth anger that erupted in 2012 shocked many across Québec and Canada. And to many who understood its origins the least, the instinctual response was often ridicule, when not derision. To those who converted incredulity into curiosity, however, the very strength and suddenness of the revolt were the sure signs of deeper acrimonies that lay simmering for years, and that had surged to the fore precisely because the political establishment had long refused them recognition. It’s not hard to see why: In their day, the greying members of Québec’s political classes enjoyed generous social protections, cheap public services and a promising economic and (comparatively speaking) ecological future. Yet in the eyes of many of Québec’s students, these élites were now pulling the rug out from under the feet of the following generation.

Whether the subject was public education, social services, the climate crisis or our natural resources, the mobilizing sentiment was thus one and the same: a seething and even existential fear that by the time youth grew to assume positions of power, there would simply be little left to inherit, or to save. And the more the older generations backed the Liberals’ push to privatize the education system, the more the students’ sense of being ignored and exploited hardened into resolve, as they arose to go toe to toe against an aging establishment that was mobilized completely in the defence of its own interests.

This potent undercurrent of the student unrest surfaced in the earliest weeks of the strike. It appeared in the opinion pages of newspapers and online, and in informational material produced by some of the movement’s core backers, like the progressive think-tank, the Institut de recherche et d’informations socio-économique (IRIS). Although it was not explicitly featured in the public arguments of the student leaders during the strike, to many this undercurrent of intergenerational resentment served as the moral substructure of the mobilization and as an affirmation of the innate justice of their cause.

Drinking up and poisoning the well

The reports authored by IRIS painted a stark portrait: Québec’s students in 2012 had to work an average of 67 percent more to pay for their studies than the group that attended universities in the 1970s, who had basked in the benefits of frozen tuition levels and the full slate of the Quiet Revolution’s efforts at democratizing education. Indeed, by the government’s own ready admission, the hikes would have brought inflation-adjusted tuition levels back to 1968 — prior, that is, to the first student strike that year, which brought fuller implementation of the Parent Commission’s transformative reforms. And naturally, as tuition levels have risen, so too has the proportion of students who work part-time in order to pay for their studies.

In 1970, only one in five Québec students worked during the school year; by 2012, four fifths of the student body worked sixteen hours a week or more, in addition to full-time summer employment.

Such is the face of the advancing cultural revolution of the capitalist class, whereby life has value only when it is economically productive, to them — and even those who submit are incapable of stemming their rising indebtedness.

Average student debt in Québec rose to $16,202 by 2009 for the final year of undergraduate studies, and the FEUQ estimates that 65 percent of students finish their undergraduate degrees with $15,000 of debt. Adjusted for inflation, these numbers represent multiples greater than what any Québec cohort since the 1970s has had to contend with. Indeed, with the current provincial system that makes it impossible for students to keep the grants and loans portions of their aid separate, the process is virtually designed to guarantee that students graduate with debt the second they accept help. Yet far from inciting concern among the establishment, the powerful interests behind the scenes are surely satisfied with the trend: Interest fees on student loans in Québec are funnelled directly into the pockets of the largest banks, in contrast even to the federal system, which was modified in 2001 to correct for this perversion. Since 1989, $1.5 billion of public funds has been transferred by the Québec government to the banks to cover the interest fees of students while they are still engaged in their studies, and $30 million is paid to them annually by students who have graduated.

The bank lobbies thus have a direct interest in the indebtedness of Québec’s students — as well, it would appear, as in the Liberal Party’s success. Under Charest, the banks boasted impressive victories, notably gaining the abolition of the capital tax in 2007 that had been in place since 1947, a gift worth nearly a billion dollars annually, which, if allotted appropriately, could have funded the entire cost of free university education for every Quebecer.

To justify this increase in youth indebtedness, the Liberal government, characteristically unconcerned with all but financial measures of success, made the claim that the investment in an undergraduate diploma provides a net return of $600,000 more in earnings over the span of an average lifetime. Yet even if we were to debate in the Liberals’ language of dollars and cents, one of the many evident problems with this argument, based on figures from 2006, is that it’s impossible to predict future earnings based on yesterday’s economy. This is particularly true in the present context of wider educational attainment, which is rapidly decreasing the value of a degree precisely as tuition fees continue to rise.

Today’s alumni are in fact far from compensated for their inflated debt loads with salaries to match their greater qualifications. The 2006 Canadian census instead found that graduate-age Canadians (twenty-five to twenty-nine) were earning thousands less in 2005 constant dollars than those who entered the post-university job market in 1980, with young men’s earnings falling from an average of $43,767 in 1980 to $37,680 in 2005, and that of women falling by $709 despite their rapidly rising educational attainment over the same period.

It’s been said many times, and will be said again: This may well be the first generation to be left a lower standard of living than their parents enjoyed before them.

These figures, taken together, hint at exactly that and speak to a very real deterioration in students’ quality of life in recent decades: to a student population that is paying more for their studies, working longer hours to pay for it, incurring more debt and once graduated, is earning less for it — but also, to a student body whose academic performance and mental and emotional health are threatened by increasing levels of stress. It is of little surprise that a study by Statistics Canada in 2008 found that full-time students who work twenty hours a week or more exhibit greater stress levels and higher levels of absenteeism, see their academic performance suffer, and are ultimately placed at greater risk of dropping out. It may be naïve not to think that for the Liberals, this collateral is but a small price to pay to force more students onto the job market — and all while amassing the debt that conspires to mould them into submissive workers for many years to come.

Shackled to the treadmill: The tyranny of debt

Indeed, this is another way that raising tuition levels serves to further the market society’s most totalitarian ambitions: by narrowing students’ freedoms to pursue their own paths. We can see it just beneath the surface of the Liberals’ “earnings premium” argument, which dabbles in averages and thereby downplays the socially significant question of which disciplines purchase greater salaries and which do not.

A study by CIBC World Markets in 2013 found that graduates of fine and applied arts programs actually made an average of 12 percent less than those with only a high school diploma between 2001 and 2011. According to the CIBC, just under half of all Canadian students choose what they call “underperforming” disciplines in the arts and humanities, where the added financial value of a diploma is marginal at best. These students, say the report’s authors, “aren’t getting a relative edge in terms of income prospects,” and yet tuition fees for all disciplines have continued to soar, with Canada’s currently standing at twice the average of the advanced industrial countries of the OECD (Québec’s, after Charest’s tuition increase was cancelled, now hover around the OECD average). Students within the arts and humanities — disciplines that encourage a broadening of one’s social perspectives and that do more to favour independent critical thought — are being squeezed, as those who reject the market’s signals to pursue their passions are punished with a much longer and more arduous path to financial emancipation. Indeed, it’s of no small import that the students who stayed on strike the longest during the spring of 2012 came from the fields of the humanities and fine arts.

Built in to the debt system, therefore, is a more subtle and more sinister mechanism of social engineering at work, and one that so completely encapsulates the coldly monetarist mindset of the neoliberal establishment. To graduates beginning their working lives submerged under terrifyingly unfamiliar mountains of debt, the years immediately following graduation may be the decisive phase that defines their life’s trajectory. The psychological and financial stresses that bear on them as they embark on their professional development can therefore only act as pressures that conspire to funnel students down financially rewarding paths — or if the system is running at optimal efficiency, to dissuade them from ever pursuing their dreams in the first place. Yet in the pathologically blinkered eyes of the current market, socially, culturally and environmentally constructive ends are most frequently assigned little value, while their destructive opposites are.

Those saddled with debt are often in too vulnerable a position to risk the necessary time and effort to discover their true calling. They are quickly pushed to choose money over more fulfilling or high-minded explorations, but at high personal and collective cost indeed. For with the edges of these graduates’ individualities blunted to fit neatly into ready-made economic slots, the singular inspirations and energies of too many are withdrawn from the pool of resources channelled toward collective goods — as triumphant capitalism marches onward, its boots on the necks of the youth’s struggles for self-actualization.

(Footnotes available in the original.)


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