If you go back to debates in the 1993 election, or Lloyd Axworthy’s famous Social Security “Green Paper”, most of what you see in the discourse about PSE would be pretty familiar today: “higher tuition = less access”, etc. But what you wouldn’t find was any discussion of student debt. It just wasn’t something anyone talked about.
Partly, this was because there wasn’t a lot of student debt at the time. Although federal and provincial loans programs were undergoing a series of changes (increases in loan limits, cuts in grant programs), which set the stage for much higher student loan debt, no one was feeling it yet. But the more important reason was that no one understood how potent “debt” could be as a political argument. And it wasn’t student groups who would stumble upon this realization – it was the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC).
In the mid-90s, AUCC had a simple mantra: the sector needed to speak with one voice. No squabbling with CAUT or student groups – find a package of measures everyone can agree on. In 1996-7, that unity of purpose on the research file resulted in the creation of the Canada Foundation for Innovation. I was hired by AUCC at about that time to try to do the same thing for student aid. I thought the idea was nuts – at the time, university Presidents primarily saw student aid as a revenue-generating device, and students weren’t going to sign up for that.
What bridged the gap was the decision to focus on student debt. Students and Presidents might have different views about tuition, but everyone could agree that student debt was bad. Heck, Paul Martin was on TV every damn night, telling us debt was bad. Different kind of debt, obviously, but such was the zeitgeist – who could possibly be in favour of more debt? And so we decided to focus on that.
As a matter of luck, in the summer of 1996, HRDC erroneously published an estimate stating that average debt among borrowers would reach $25,000 in 1998. In fact, it would take another decade to do so, but the error allowed us to make invidious comparisons between student debt in Canada and debt among graduates of US private universities, where average debt at the time was about $17K. Nothing spurred Chretien-era Liberals to action faster than invidious comparisons with the US; All it took was one front page story in the Toronto Star, and suddenly student aid became a hot file. A little help from our friends at CFS and other coalition allies, and all of a sudden, we had an entire federal budget dealing with student debt.
Bottom line: student debt didn’t organically become a political issue in Canada. It was very much “invented” in Ottawa – a politically convenient way to paper-over the cracks of a lobbying coalition, and successfully cudgel against a sitting government at the same time.