Student aid
Healthy load of suggestions for ministerial panel

by Ric Stryde
Northern News Services

NNSL (Sep 08/97) - Student loans and grants are in for a change in the NWT. That much is certain. Just what will become of them is anything but.

The Ministerial Forum on Student Financial Assistance now touring the NWT was called into being because too many students are taking advantage of the GNWT's generous student aid packages. Its budget and recipient list has doubled since 1992 to $15.5 million and some 2,000 students.

Based on what was heard during recent forum session in Inuvik, Yellowknife and Iqaluit, however, it's not just rising costs that are causing problems. Plenty of suggestions have come from aboriginal groups, and business interests and the public at large.

Forum chair Louise Vertes said last month that all suggestions that were presented will be taken and incorporated into recommendations to the minister of Education Minister Charles Dent in October.

Vertes said that she was happy with the turnout and that they are getting plenty of suggestions. (Written submissions can be sent to the forum until Friday.)

Several common themes emerged from the first two sessions.

  • The need to cap spending is appreciated by many, but the forum panel was warned to be careful when tampering with what many consider a vital program.

  • Changes to the student aid system must reflect the evolving state of how students are learning in the North. Government should therefore be investing more in long-distance education and the system should be expanded to include apprenticeship programs.

  • Student-loan eligibility should be based on need, so those who have no trouble finding their own sources of support are not given as much as those who require assistance. Some suggested a placing a cap on total student aid available.

  • Many people from the smaller communities complained that it isn't clear to every student how the program works. There were different suggestions on how to eradicate this problem. One was devolving more management of the system to the communities; another was setting up regional or community counsellors to explain the package to confused students.

In Iqaluit last week, some presented complaints about poor administration practices, as well.

But not every proposal was made in an atmosphere of consensus. There was also some strong opposition to devolving the power to decide who gets how much money -- what forum member Jason Lepine of Fort Smith called "community empowerment."

One presenter at the Inuvik forum, for example, balked at the idea, saying they wouldn't trust any process that put their educational future in the hands of other, possibly biased, members of the community.

Similar concerns were heard in Yellowknife.

Also up for debate was the idea of denying aid to those who parents can afford to support their children's studies. Some parents may not share the government's enthusiasm for sending Northern youth to southern schools, said one Inuvik resident.

Vertes said she hopes to hear from anyone who would like to have a say, even if they can't make it in person.

"As a forum," she said, "we actively encourage people to send us written submissions."