Premier Christy Clark promotes her government's balanced budget in Surrey.

Pay down that student loan or else

Premier Christy Clark's 'get off the couch and get a job' message is being translated into government policy

VICTORIA – In a recent speech, Premier Christy Clark quipped that while teenagers tend to be lazy, there is a limit. If your kid is still on the couch after age 30, she said, he’s not a teenager any more. “He’s a New Democrat.”

Clark’s ‘get off the couch and get a job’ message is now being translated into government policy. The B.C. government is using one of the few tools available to it to track down people who aren’t paying off their student loans, by linking defaulted debt to driver’s licence renewals.

There are “hardship” provisions for those who don’t have a job. ICBC will only refuse to renew a driver’s licence or vehicle plates for those who have let their student debt go for a year without making some effort to deal with it.

Student debt collection is a long-standing problem for the province, with about $185 million currently on the books as defaulted and unpaid. Students naturally move around after completing their studies, and once the six-month grace period for beginning to repay student loans expires, finding those who aren’t paying becomes a costly effort.

Historically governments sent defaulted debt to collection agencies. Last year $17.3 million was collected.

How big is student debt these days? The subject was discussed briefly in the legislature last week.

In question period, NDP leader John Horgan reminded the government that tuition fees have doubled over the past decade, and cited a Bank of Montreal estimate that the average university student emerges from a four-year program owing $35,000 in student loans.

With his usual modesty and tact, Advanced Education Minister Andrew Wilkinson dismissed Horgan’s accusation that he is indifferent to the plight of students. Wilkinson noted that the Bank of Montreal surveyed 602 students across Canada, and only 78 of them were in B.C.

“To clarify this, and to address the cackling chickens on the other side, we have 430,000 students in our system,” Wilkinson said. “Some of them are part-time; some of them are on short courses. We have 180,000 students who are in the system full-time and eligible for student aid.

“Of those 180,000 students, 45,000 turn to the province for financial aid – meaning that 75 per cent of students, more than what was quoted on the CBC yesterday, go through their education without incurring debt through the provincial student aid program.”

Whatever the amount owing is for an individual, it’s a debt that will be more difficult to avoid paying. The province has long used the withholding of driving privileges to collect unpaid provincial court fines, and that was recently extended to those who are 90 days in arrears on $25 or more worth of Lower Mainland bridge tolls.

This student debt collection move follows efforts to match up post-secondary funding to areas of employment demand. In an era where misguided university professors use their positions to organize violent protests against job-creating projects, the messages are similar.

Variations of this productivity theme are being heard from governments across North America. The baby boomers are retiring. We are bringing in temporary foreign workers, not because of some right-wing plot, but because too many people growing up in our society refuse to do an increasing range of jobs.

We have an education system – and media – that encourages people to complain and make demands to get what they want. And we are seeing the results of all of this.

There was a U.S. president once who said, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”

Tom Fletcher is legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press. Twitter: @tomfletcherbc