© Media Indigena, 2011

Bitti, M. T. (2011) Student loans a hard lesson National Post, June 4

This article provides some sobering statistics about student debt in Canada:

  • $26,680 Average debt for university graduates in 2009.
  • $4,724 Average university tuition fee in 08/09, up from $2,591 in 1999.
  • $20 billion Current debt for post-secondary education borrowed from all sources.
  • $1.2 million Daily increase in student loan debt owed to the government of Canada.
  • $149.5 million The amount of unrecoverable student loan debt.
  • 27% Number of people with debt loads above $25,000 when they leave university and college, up from 17% in 1995.
  • 8% interest rate on federal loans; after default in repayment, interest rates compound rapidly (prime business rate is 3%).


We like to pat ourselves on the back for using e-learning to increase student flexibility, but one reason why our online enrollments are growing is because this is often an attempt by students to keep down their debt, by working part-time and ‘time-shifting’ their study to e-learning. One of many consequences of increasing part-time work to avoid large debts is that it takes longer to graduate as a result. In other words, online learning is becoming the food-bank of education – necessary, but often a second best alternative to dealing with the real problem, which in both cases is poverty. (Ironically, many online students are refused federal loans because they are not classified as full-time students – a double whammy).

David Molenhuis, chairman of the Canadian Federation of Students, hit the nail right on the head when he stated:

You shouldn’t have to accumulate so much debt to get through school. That’s where we want to start……..Canada does not have a national vision for its post-secondary education system. For the billions of dollars we pour into the system, we do so without a vision for outcomes. We don’t know what it is we want to get out of our colleges and universities in order to meet the needs of the 21st century.

There are also grave economic consequences down the road, as the article points out. Roger Sauvé, author of the 10th edition of Canada Job Trends Update 2011, states

The burden of student debt has also caused graduates … to take jobs that aren’t their first choice and so they will have to wait even longer for their net worth to turn positive, leaving them a shorter period of time to build up adequate retirement savings. As a result, the economy may grow less quickly than in the past as this indebted generation allocates more of their wages to paying off student debt and then having to save as much as possible each year to build up their net worth…. It is not a positive for the economy.

Since increased tuition fees are the cause, and Canada’s tuition fees are well below those of both the USA and the U.K., the economic consequences for these countries is even more severe.

What is needed is a complete rethinking of public higher education policy, based on a cost-benefit analysis and a more sophisticated look at the market and ability to pay. For instance, I would support every person having the right to four years state-funded post-secondary education. But do we need to subsidize lifelong learners who have already had these four years and are now in the workforce and able to pay full fees? Do we have the best balance between professional and trades training? Are we providing sufficent education and training opportunities for unemployed youth? In other words do we have too many going into more expensive university graduate education when what is needed are more power engineers or nurses or training for disadvantaged learners? Do we have a system with built-in flexibility that can adapt to major shifts in the labour market? What funding model would provide that flexibility while also ensuring equity of access? Where is the debate on this? It certainly was completely absent from the last municipal, provincial and federal elections in Canada this year. (We could say the same about how to pay for our health service). Instead we get beer and circuses from our politicians (i.e. Christy Clark in a Canucks jersey lighting dead Olympic torches).

Helping reduce – or more likely deferring – student debt is a valuable role for online learning. However, many of us would prefer it to be used because it leads to better learning, not because it ameliorates a poorly developed public higher education funding policy.

For the situation in the US, see: Tuition costs vs middle class income in the USA




  1. Online learning will be the future solution to many of the problems facing the education sector toady. But home study and distance learning doesn’t have to be solely about getting a degree. There are numerous other online education resources that can be utilised simply to enhance one’s skills for personal gain or to make you more attractive to employers. Many top American and European universities offers some free courses. Besides its degree programs, e-learning giants like the University of Phoenix offer many non-degree courses. Alison.com is another valuable site as they offer hundreds of free online courses the caliber of which countless other sites charge for. Of course one could always go to the good old library and read a book.

  2. Thanks for this post.

    I work with instructional designers building online courses, mostly directed at students in the workforce who wouldn’t be attending an institution of higher learning anyway. I myself have no formal qualifications for the job, only the ability to do the work and the “willingness” to perform at a low wage because my wife has a good income and benefits. In addition, my position is contract, residing outside the main budget and likely, outside the institution’s knowledge of its own operational functions. This includes professional development which I pay for myself or pick-up at discussion forums and other informal learning venues.

    In the continuing adventure of my life I have no complaints–this the way my lifelong learning works itself out. The only flaw is should someone ever ask that I certify my skills through the standard educational process my student loan debt would force me to find another job that paid better. Or maybe not. Maybe the internet, social learning and reasonably priced online courses are creating a sense of openness that permits casual learning to recognized as legitimate?

    It might also be that the need for learners to apply themselves to subjects in a knowledge economy is a need that can’t be served by our current educational arrangements? Not that we need a “private market” solution here, rather that we need a return to the sense of education being a public social project that needn’t support itself by beggaring the people it is expected to serve.

    Scott Johnson

  3. We definitely need a new way of certifying/accrediting professionals. With so many free/low cost resources available and so many alternatives to traditional education available, the perpetual need for continual skill building can be met in many ways that don’t involve massive debt. We just don’t have a way to readily acknowledge the acquisition of these new skills especially when so many job descriptions stipulate degrees rather than skills.

Leave a Reply to Scott Johnson Cancel reply

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here