The Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) announced its participation in the Debt-Free Degree campaign on Nov. 3, joining a coalition of eight other student unions that collectively represent over 250,000 undergraduate students in Canada. Since then, SSMU has encouraged students to voice their concerns on student debt by writing postcards to their local Member of Parliament (MP) through www.debtfreedegree.ca. Led by the Undergraduates of Canadian Research-Intensive Universities (UCRU) and the University Students’ Council at Western University, the campaign intends to advocate for increased financial support from the Canadian federal government for post-secondary students.
The coalition includes the Alma Mater Society of University of British Columbia, the University of Manitoba Students’ Union, the McMaster Students’ Union, the University of Saskatchewan Students’ Union, the University of Toronto Students’ Union, the Alma Mater Society of Queen’s University, and the Waterloo Undergraduate Student Association. The coalition aims to advocate for two financial support measures: A two-year grace period on all Canadian student loans and a doubling of investments in the Canada Student Grants Program.
Mackenzy Metcalfe, chair of the UCRU, explained why the organization chose student financial aid as a central demand of the campaign.
“Students in Canada face significant financial barriers in their pursuit of higher education,” Metcalfe wrote. “The average amount of student debt in Canada is $28,000, which burdens students as they enter the workforce and begin their lives upon graduation [….] This campaign is important because investments in students are really an investment in the future. We will make up tomorrow’s workforce, and increased funding in student financial aid will undoubtedly see exponential returns.”
Metcalfe encouraged students to take part in UCRU’s upcoming federal lobby week taking place from Nov. 23-27, where the coalition will be meeting with MPs to highlight students’ concerns.
“SSMU will be attending UCRU’s lobby week, along with the other UCRU schools, where we will elevate these concerns of students to Members of Parliament and advocate on issues including increased student financial aid, supports for Indigenous students, increasing research opportunities for undergraduate students, and supports for international students,” Metcalfe wrote.
Olivia Osso, U3 Arts, spoke to The McGill Tribune about the coalition’s attempts to increase public awareness and financial support for post-secondary students, especially considering the financial instability caused by COVID-19.
“Navigating financial barriers has always been difficult for post-secondary students,” Osso said. “With COVID-19, however, these difficulties have an added layer of uncertainty. Will recent graduates be able to gain employment right away? So many people are already losing their jobs after years of stable employment. Increasing the grace period for student loans and doubling investments are a few things that the federal government can do, but it would only be a start.”
SSMU Vice-President External Affairs Ayo Ogunremi explained the future goals of the campaign in regards to student involvement at McGill in an email to the Tribune.
“The McGill administration isn’t exactly an ally to students on issues of student fees,” Ogunremi said. “McGill students, however, can form solidarity networks and build grassroots capacity to challenge the structure of university financing [….] Our Policy on Accessible Education and Academics recognizes that our advocacy on student tuition always needs to be looking towards eventually eliminating tuition and ancillary fees [and seeking] alternate financing structures which do not place the burden on students.”
Ogunremi outlined the accomplishments of the current campaign so far, stating that UCRU representatives have been communicating with key government actors.
“The effects of the campaign are difficult to tell so far, but I think you could say there have been small wins,” Ogunremi said. “The campaign is growing in attention across the country and UCRU representatives have been able to push these points with key federal ministers like the Honourable Mona Fortier, Minister of Middle-Class Prosperity and Associate Minister of Finance, and the Honourable Bardish Chagger, Minister of Diversity and Inclusion and Youth.”