• Michael Laxer

The federal NDP's "free tuition" pledge is much ado about literally nothing


Singh announces student "debt relief" plan, March 20, 2021 - video screenshot


I will give Jagmeet Singh credit for one thing: He has managed to turn very little into some positive press and social media feedback. The NDP are pros at trying to spin mediocre, milquetoast and moderate policy proposals as somehow transformative and radical, but their latest pronouncements around post-secondary tuition and student loans in Canada take this to a whole new level.


As you may have heard, Singh has been touting his alleged commitment to reducing student debt and "to working towards a future where tuition is free."


This has produced headlines for Singh and the party like this one on March 22:



That has got to lead to some feel good progressive vibes.


But, as is so often the case with the NDP, the reality may not really live up to the rhetoric.


The NDP's post-secondary loans and fees platform has five major points:


• Re-instate the moratorium on student loan payments until the pandemic is over.


• Permanently remove interest on all federal student loans.


• Give new graduates a five-year head start without having to repay any federal student loans.


• Cancel up to $20,000 of federal student loan debt per student for old and new graduates.


• Commit to working towards a future where tuition is free.


The first three points are certainly steps that the vast bulk of progressives would embrace. They represent what I think most would see as a solid bare minimum of any left-leaning platform on the issue.


When we get to the fourth point we find not only a cap on the amount of debt that would be cancelled but also that the devil is in the details.


The "up to" is the essential part. Under the plan after the five years of not having to repay any loans, the cancelling of debt would be rather steeply means-tested. An NDP government would "allow for up to $20,000 of debt forgiveness for households with an income less than or equal to $60,000. Income would be based on the five-year average after leaving school."


A $60,000 household income threshold is actually quite low. From there under the plan for "households earning more than $60,000, debt forgiveness would be calculated using a sliding scale. For every dollar of income above $60,000, the debt forgiveness amount would be reduced by 50 cents."


Households making more than $100,000 would not be able to benefit from the program."


This really is almost embarrassing. It is not universal but rather it uses a fairly low household income threshold for a maximum relief that is capped. Singh described the plan as "bold and ambitious". It is neither.


As for the "free tuition" pledge, there are no details to find a devil in, and not in a good way.


What is the plan for "free tuition"? The commitment to work (or, more accurately, call on Justin Trudeau to make a commitment) towards a "future" -- who can say when...one day maybe -- where it happens. That's it. That's the "plan".


This is entirely akin to the regular claims of politicians of all stripes to want to see a poverty-free Canada or a Canada where "no one is left behind". And it is just as meaningless.

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