2 min

Drowning in student debt

Queer student Gabrielle Castilloux is speaking out about rising tuition fees

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Gabrielle Castilloux goes to bed every night thinking about money, dreams about money and wakes up every morning still thinking about money.

It’s not love of designer clothes, posh restaurants and global, first-class travel that has her fixated. No, Castilloux is just one of thousands of Canadian students struggling to make ends meet.

A fourth-year social work student at Carleton University, Castilloux studies full time and works 30 to 35 hours a week at a job that pays $12.50 an hour. She has a second job, working in Ottawa bars when she’s called in, earning minimum wage plus tips. She lives with her parents, which means a 90-minute commute to and from university.

“My first year of university was around $5,800, and now my fourth year is over $7,000,” says Castilloux, who is queer. “In the four years I’ve been in university, I’ve seen a significant rise.”

According to a recent study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), tuition fees will rise an estimated 13 percent over the next four years. Although Castilloux is set to graduate in the spring, she plans to do a master’s degree and is concerned about tuition’s escalating cost.

“If no one stands up, if no one says what’s wrong, nothing will change,” she says. “I feel like Ontarians are very quiet. We have the highest tuition fees in Canada, and there’s not a lot of people who are ready to stand up and do something about it.”

Jessica McCormick, national chairperson for the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), says the federal government should establish a national strategy to reduce tuition fees. A Cape Breton native, McCormick did her undergraduate degree at Memorial University in Newfoundland, where tuition fees are the lowest in the country.

“We’re not advocating for equalization by any means,” McCormick says, saying the CFS has no desire to see Ontario’s tuition rates lowered at the expense of Newfoundland’s raised. “We’re advocating for across-the-board reductions through a dedicated transfer payment for post-secondary education and by establishing a national strategy.”

Once Parliament resumes on Oct 16, neither Castilloux nor McCormick expect Prime Minister Stephen Harper to jump at the chance to play a role in reducing tuition fees, but both say doing nothing isn’t an option for students.

“I can only imagine the health risks and the mental health risks that students are going to go through if tuition keeps rising,” Castilloux says.

Adjusting for inflation, CCPA estimates that by the academic year of 2016/17, tuition and compulsory fees will have tripled since 1990/91. 
Post-secondary students in Newfoundland and Labrador have been successful in convincing a Conservative provincial government to reduce barriers to education, from maintaining a decade-long tuition freeze to eliminating the interest on provincial student loans, McCormick says.

“Having a united voice behind these demands is very effective, and Newfoundland and Labrador is a good example of that,” McCormick says. “I do believe that students need to continue to speak up to place pressure on provincial governments and the federal government to take action to address the high tuition fees and high student debt.”