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By Chris Richardson

Souad Bouchir wants to come to Ryerson after she gets her diploma from Centennial College.

She wants to run her own business one day and make a better life for herself and her three-year-old son. But she’s not looking forward to the $50,000 debt she’ll have when she graduates.

Two years ago the federal government promised “one hundred per cent of high school graduates [would] have the opportunity to participate in some form of post-secondary education.”

But they didn’t mention the enormous debt load students from middle and low-income families would be burdened with.

According to Statistics Canada, about 40 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds from families making more than $100,000 per year have a university degree or are in the process of earning one.

Fewer than 20 per cent of young people coming from low-income families like Bouchir’s are earning university degrees. So the Ontario government comissioned former premier Bob Rae to lead the postsecondary review on education to discuss why the gap exists and how to fix it. The review has been analyzing accessibility, quality, funding and accountability.

On Friday, Rae’s discussion paper was released. Rae said in his introductory message that he sees the education system “on the edge of a choice between steady decline and great improvement.

“Public support for higher education is skewed by a tax system whose benefits go mainly to those with higher incomes…[and] student aid is badly broken.” For 34-year-old Bouchir, who studied medicine in Morocco before immigrating to Canada in 1999, becoming a doctor here costs too much money.

Instead, she decided to pursue a career in business administration. Thanks to the Ontario Student Assistance Program, she studies while raising her son and working at a Toronto community housing complex in Scarborough.

But borrowing the money for school is tough for her. “You see it hanging over your head,” Bouchir said. “Sooner or later you have to pay that money back. And the more you go on and study, the more you’re [getting] into debt.”

The average debt after university in Ontario is $25,000, according to Statistics Canada.

Jesse Greener, the Ontario chairperson for the Canadian Federation of Students, said schools and government should be looking for ways to help students that won’t leave them in debt. “Borrowing money should be an absolute emergency last option,” said Greener. “Unfortunately it’s become the trend. Huge [numbers] of students are actually financing their education on a loan. That’s not right.” It wasn’t always like this. Universities have gone through major changes in the last few decades.

In the ’70s, there were about 240,000 university students in Canada. By 1985, there were more than 472,000 students. And the numbers have continued to rise as university degrees become necessary for work that once required only high school diplomas.

During this time of growth, government funding decreased from $20,000 per student in the ’70s to $13,000 by 1985. By the end of the ’90s, per student government funding was just under $11,000.

Because of these reductions, university fees increased 137 per cent throughout the ’90s.

“We need to look at how universities and colleges are funded, period,” said Greener. “In other words, are we going to privatize&or are we going to have it available to everybody despite their wealth?”

Greener said he worried that the review panel might have already made up its mind as it prepares for a release of its advice for the government in January.

“The review, it seems, has become increasingly politicized to the point where the actual consultations that are supposed to be going on have been somewhat suspect,” he said.

Greener points to a chronology of events since the Rae mandate was formed earlier this year. Rae was appointed to lead the taskforce in May, though he had been premier during funding cuts and the removal of needs-based grants.

This spring, The Globe and Mail reported Rae made comments supporting deregulated tuition fees. In June, student groups raised a ruckus when no one appointed to the seven-member panel had advocated for lower tuition fees in the past.

Mary Anne Chambers, Ontario minister of training, colleges and universities, later said tuition would begin to rise as soon as the freeze was over. An unnamed panel member, who was quoted in the Sept. 6 issue of Maclean’s magazine said; “tuition is going to have to go up.” According to Ruth MacKey, a representative for the review, that isn’t necessarily the case.

“[The government] commissioned a serious review and that’s what we’re undertaking.” MacKey says students can still contribute their thoughts and advice to the review.

“Any student can send written or online submissions at any time.”

Dates have been set for public town hall meetings in November and December in Toronto, although the locations have not yet been confirmed.

“We’re very concerned that this review process maintain its original goals to actually reach out to Ontarians and seek their input,” Greener said. “We’re very confident that Ontarians want to see tuition fees go down.

“Over eighty per cent of Ontarians think that tuition fees are too high.”

Some people are skeptical of such recommendations, even if they favour lower tuitions. Isabella Bardoel, 53, who graduated from Ryerson 28 years ago and now has two sons in university, said the review seems like nothing more than a gesture to stop Ontarians from demanding results.

“Very little ever happens when these big reviews are commissioned.There’s usually a lot of talk about the issue and that’s about it,” Bardoel said.

She remembers graduating from Ryerson’s journalism program by paying about $1,500 per year-half of which was subsidized by the government as long as she kept her grades up.

Ryerson President Claude Lajeunesse said current tuition prices are roughly the same as the tuition of the ’60s, considering a house cost $12,000 at the time.

“There has been some catch up,” he said. “You have to put these things into perspective.”

But the rapidly rising tuition fees in Ontario have sent one message to families with low incomes, Greener said.

“It said that you’re not only being shut out of an opportunity to learn and move forward,” he said. “It also said that you won’t even be able to access a decent job because you can’t get into university or college.”

As a low-income, single mother trying to get a university degree, Bouchir doesn’t believe that. “I am in social housing right now because I can’t afford to buy a house for my son. But that’s why I’m going to school and giving a hard time to myself. Because I have a goal and I have to pursue it.”

She thinks low-income students can succeed if they work hard enough despite the large debts they’re forced into. Bouchir, who works close to 30 hours a week in addition to being a full-time student at Centennial, hopes to start a business in five years.

“I have so many ideas,” she said. “Probably you can find me at Scarborough Town Centre opening my own food store, [featuring] some Moroccan dishes.”

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