08/31/2015 06:09 EDT | Updated 08/31/2016 01:59 EDT

Federal Election 2015: Student Groups To Pressure Parties

"We feel that we have a responsibility to change the narrative of apathetic young people or apathetic students."

OTTAWA — The head of one of the country's largest groups representing college and university students says her organization is looking for federal parties to promise changes in how the federal government funds post-secondary education.

Among those potential promises is a plan from the Canadian Federation of Students to replace the federal student loan program with more grants to students and schools to cover the cost of tuition.

"We could have a much better system without spending a dime more," said CFS national chairperson Bilan Arte.

Arte said her group, which represents more than 500,000 students on 70 campuses, wants to see parties talk about their plans for funding post-secondary education, addressing concerns about student debt, high youth unemployment and unpaid internships "to help ensure that this generation isn't left behind."

Students returning to campuses this week and next will find themselves the target of get-out-the-vote campaigns as the CFS and its counterpart, the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations, work to get students to vote on Oct. 19 to reverse the image of students as being politically apathetic.

About 39 per cent of voters aged 18 to 24 cast a ballot in the 2011 federal election, the lowest for any age group reviewed by Elections Canada.

Heading into this election, Elections Canada data from April 2014 found that about 70 per cent of the more than three million eligible voters in that age group had registered to vote — the lowest number, again, for any group.

The CFS and CASA, which bills itself as a non-partisan organization, have each spent two years crafting their get-out-the-vote campaign that combined will reach some 800,000 students.

"We feel that we have a responsibility to change the narrative of apathetic young people or apathetic students," said Matthew Rios, who is in charge of government relations for CASA.

"For us to have influence here in Ottawa, we need to be able to show decision makers that our constituency is not only engaged, but are also voting in the ridings that these MPs are coming from."

Although education is a provincial matter, the federal government doles out billions each year on repayable and non-repayable loans and grants to post-secondary students across the country. Briefing material provided to Employment Minister Pierre Poilievre earlier this year noted that in the 2012-2013 fiscal year, the government handed out $3.3 billion in repayable and non-repayable loans and grants to about 496,000 post-secondary students in Canada.

The department's most recent plans and priorities report pegged spending on the program this year at just under $1.5 billion.

The documents provided to Poilievre say that federally, at least, student debt levels are not out of control. The briefing material says the average federal student loan debt at graduation has "remained relatively stable," down 10 per cent between fiscal year 2009-10 and fiscal year 2012-13. In the latter of those two fiscal years, the average Canada Student Loan debt was just over $12,300, officials told Poilievre.

Those debts are written off if there is "little to no possibility" of collecting the money, officials wrote. Among the reasons why: bankruptcy, severe financial hardship, a settlement agreement for repaying the money or expiry of a six-year statute of limitations.

The briefing material notes the "vast majority" of writeoffs fall into that last category where the government has "no legal authority to enforce collection."

The Canadian Press obtained a copy of the documents through the Access to Information Act.

Student groups say those numbers don't tell the whole story. The student loan program has frozen the maximum loan amount since 2005, meaning more students are getting loans and bringing down the average. As well, the number of students on repayment assistance plans continues to go up, suggesting more graduates are having a hard time repaying their loans.

"Those are all trends that we're seeing that very much speak against statements that student debt is not an issue, or that student debt is getting better in this country. It's not. It's getting worse," Arte said.

"And what we're actually seeing is a real lack of leadership from the federal government towards meaningfully addressing this issue."