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Student debt anxieties focus of higher ed candidate forum

At a candidates debate in Vancouver yesterday afternoon, students pressed provincial election contenders from five different parties for their solutions on anxiety-laced issues like student debt, institutional higher ed funding, and affordable student housing.

Michelle Mungall, BC NDP critic for Advanced Education and the incumbent candidate for Nelson-Creston, told the audience of about 75 she's traveled to every public postsecondary school in B.C. to speak with faculty and students about their higher ed concerns, and the number one issue facing everyone is affordability.

That's why the BC NDP has decided to put $100 million on the table in financial need-based grants for students, Mungall said. The BC Liberals cut the non-repayable, needs-based grant program for post-secondary students in the 2004-05 fiscal year, she said, and to her mind grants, rather than loans, based on financial need would alleviate some of student debt burden.

Andrew Wilkinson, the BC Liberal candidate for Vancouver-Quilchena, focused on the achievements of his party over the past 12 years as proof that the Liberals have got what it takes to improve postsecondary education in the future.

"[It's a] record we're proud of and it's a record we'll stand on," he said. "We've done as good a job as anybody in Canada."

Since the BC Liberals came into power in 2001, Wilkinson said, the budget for higher education has increased by 44 per cent and seven new institutions have been opened.

Mungall argued that the current $2 billion budget for higher education is actually a $46 million cut from last year.

Chad Eros, BC Conservative candidate for Chilliwack, referred repeatedly to the point that "we can't always look to taxes, taxes, taxes to fund schools."

He said that the University of British Columbia's partnership with China's Modern Green Development, where the university's Centre for Interactive Research and Sustainability received $3.5 million from the company for research initiatives around sustainable energy and pollution reduction, are the type of deals that institutions should make so that aren't forced to heavily rely on taxes and tuition for funding.

"We need to wean them off tuition. Innovative programming is the future," he said

Richard Hosein, BC Green Party candidate for Surrey-Green Timbers and a student at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, said that his party plans to increase core funding for higher education by $200 million annually, immediately reduce tuition fees by 20 per cent, and implement a program to eliminate interest on student debt, phased in over a five-year period.

He also addressed the issue of child-care costs for students, saying that his party plans to increase welfare rates for parents on social assistance.

Sal Vetro, BC First candidate for Vancouver-False Creek, said the government should look at offering post-secondary forgivable student loans. They should be low-interest loans that students wouldn't have to repay, he said, if they remain and work in the province for the consecutive five years. The BC First Party pledges to offer such loans.

"In our province, we need to develop an inventory of well-educated young people beyond all other places, and then and only then will we become prosperous and secure," said Vetro.

The forum was sponsored by the student societies of Simon Fraser University, UBC, the University of Northern British Columbia, the University of Victoria, and the Alliance of B.C. Students. It was moderated by Tyee education reporter Katie Hyslop.

Carly Rhianna Smith is completing a practicum at The Tyee.

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