Don't knock Millennium gifts, student says

by Anita Grace

You know the old expression, don't look a gift horse in the mouth? Well, when that gift is federal millennium scholarships, people aren't only looking in the horse's mouth, they're sending him off to the dentist.

Lately there's been quite a bit of talk about these awards, which the federal government recently doled out across Canada. But it seems to me there's a lack of information in all the coverage and a definite lack of perspective.

Back in 1997, the government announced their plan to invest $2.5 billion to improve access to post-secondary education in Canada, and founded the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation, a private organization invested with public money. This year, the foundation gave over $215 million in more than 75,000 individual awards. An estimated 1,400 of those awards went to Concordia students, averaging $1,500 each.

The recipients, who did not have to apply for the awards, were eligible simply because they are currently receiving government financial assistance. Each scholarship reduces the individual's student loan debt, basically forgiving a portion of the loan. This is the first year of a 10-year program in which students will see direct payments into their accumulated debts.

Sounds pretty good, eh? But instead of the sound of a collective sigh of relief as students across the country feel their debt load suddenly grow lighter, what we hear is a cacophony of complaints. Students in Ontario are complaining because they are not being issued cheques; the money is deposited directly into the bank to pay the existing debt. Students in Quebec somehow think this means the banks are the ones benefiting. And their provincial government, not wanting the feds intervening in their education system, stalled agreements for four months after all other provinces had signed on.

The government wants to give students money? How dare they!

I'll admit, I am a little biased. When I got home from my Christmas holidays in Saskatchewan there was a letter waiting for me from the government. Two thousand dollars is being knocked off my student loan debt. Having not heard anything about the Millennium Scholarships at the time, I was both surprised and thrilled. But what surprised me even more is the negative publicity I saw in the next few weeks.

Students complain that they don't get to decide what to do with the money themselves. If someone bought you a car, would you complain you didn't get to choose the colour as well? It's free money, folks. And you obviously need it if you're in debt!

Jean Lapierre, Director of Communications at the Millennium Scholarship Foundation, told me the awards are given out purely on a need basis. Money is divided between provinces according to population and is then distributed to students with the greatest need. So the students receiving the awards are already riding the poverty line. Should we really be complaining when we get a helping hand?

Another criticism is that banks are the first to benefit, since money is deposited directly into the institution that financed the loan.

I talked to Marie-Josˇe, the financial consultant who handles my loan at the Royal Bank. She told me if I was to take two years to pay off $2,000 of debt, assuming I make every payment on time, I would pay over $100 in additional interest. Having $2,000 taken off my debt means the bank will be getting $100 less from me.

As for Quebec not wanting federal intervention in their education, the foundation agreed that half of the $70 million given to Quebec could be put directly into student services within the provincial system. No other province received this concession.

To put it bluntly, I don't see what all the fuss is about. I'm not writing a PR piece for Chrˇtien's government or denying that there are huge financial problems facing our universities; I'm just wondering why it is that when something good comes our way we look first for ways to criticize it.

Actually, if I think about it, we aren't really taking this gift horse to the dentist to find out what's wrong. We're just shooting the horse straight off.

Anita Grace is a graduate student in the Journalism Department at Concordia.

Copyright 2000 Concordia's Thursday Report.