02/08/2016 04:17 EST | Updated 02/08/2017 05:12 EST

Canadian Federation Of Students Pushes Liberals To Spend $3.3B On Free College, University

OTTAWA — Facing higher than average unemployment and a growing threat of bankruptcy, post-secondary students are lobbying the federal government this month for billions in new spending to help cover the cost of university and college education.

The largest organization for post-secondary students in Canada is calling on the federal government to fund university and college education the same way it does health care and enshrine it in legislation.

The Canadian Federation of Students used about 200 meetings in a week of lobbying on Parliament Hill to argue for a federal post-secondary education bill that would repurpose cash used for programs like the registered education savings plan into a $3.3-billion annual transfer for provinces to make post-secondary education free.

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Justin Trudeau addresses students during a campaign event at St. Thomas University in October. (Photo: Paul Chiasson/CP)

Post-secondary education should be funded in the same way as health care because it's an essential expense that would help those with low-income backgrounds who "don't have the funds today to start saving," said CFS national chairperson Bilan Arte.

Typically a provincial issue

It's not the first time advocates have pushed for Ottawa to play a bigger role in post-secondary education, which is traditionally a provincial domain.

This time, however, student groups think they will find a sympathetic ear with a Liberal government that wooed young voters during the campaign with promises of making it easier to pay for post-secondary education and pay off federal student loans.

The Liberals promised to create a $300-million youth jobs strategy _ a response to youth unemployment rates of 13 per cent, nearly twice the national average of seven per cent.

They also promised to increase the value of and eligibility for non-repayable student grants at a cost of $750 million, and to waive loan repayment demands until a graduate was earning at least $25,000 a year.

The Canadian Alliance of Student Associations wants to see that salary threshold increase to $30,000, and will be pushing that message as part of its lobbying efforts later this month. Matthew Rios, the group's head of government relations, has high hopes for the Liberals' first budget, but is also looking down the road.

"This government will be rolling out a number of budgets subsequent to this one and our role is to ensure they have policy alternatives that provide what we call good return on investment," Rios said.

"We have really looked at what policies are the most progressive and ... help those who need the help most."

The total amount of student loan writeoffs in Canada has grown every year over the last five years, with virtually the entire $837.6-million total the result of debts having passed the six-year legal statute for collection.

The number that have been written off due to bankruptcy was $33.6 million in the 2014-15 fiscal year, which ended last March, compared with $244,676 in 2010-11, according to figures released by Employment and Social Development Canada under the Access to Information Act.

Last year, the number of student loan recipients who declared bankruptcy hit a 10-year high: 6,050 borrowers declared bankruptcy in 2015, more than double the 2,692 who did so in 2014, the next highest total since 2006.

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