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What makes for great lobbying? What gets you in the news? Why do student governments agonize and student lobbies button up, while a comparatively small group rockets into national media coverage and affects actual national party policy?

The lively example of the nascent Coalition for Student Loan Fairness (CSLF) brought these questions to my mind. The coalition was formed in April by Julian Benedict and Mark O’Meara, to give a political voice to a group of 990 000 graduates that still owe student loans. The SFU and UBC graduates (respectively), neither of whom had ever had anything to do with campus politics or goverance, got together and decided to do something about the disturbing prospect of paying their loans back to a broken system. Since its formation in April, I’ve heard about the CSLF on the CBC multiple times, and seen more than a few stories in mainstream newsprint and new sires (example: today’s MacLean’s Magazine article) . At first I was puzzled and a little miffed that it wasn’t CASA or CFS, (the two federal Canadian student lobbies) that were constantly in the news about such a crucial topic. How is it possible that the large umbrella orginizations, and even our own student societies have been either ineffectual or silent where a small group of graduates completely unconnected to student government of any sort were making waves?

I called up Julian Benedict, the coalition’s communications manager and co-founder to find out just exactly who the coalition was, and how they had made their quick ascent to political currency and newsworthiness. “I truly believe that if you have a good story, it will get out there,” said Benedict. Benedict is an SFU history honours graduate. After he graduated, he and CSLF co-founder Mark O’Meara (a UBC student) realized that there are 990 000 thousand borrowers in a gray area with no political representation. These borrowers are a little stranded – they are no longer represented by student government, but are dealing with the fallout of funding their post-secondary education in a student aid system that’s often dysfunctional, confused, and abusive.

Through discussion on O’Meara’s website, Benedict began to feel the magnitude of the issue. “In the begining, I spent a lot of time asking myself if this was a real issue,” he recounted. The more he spoke to other borrowers, the more he was convinced that it was. Benedict soon started filling access to information requests, talking to administrators, and synthesizing statistics. The information and knowledge amassed in this research process, and the collection of stories from borrowers form the base for the coalition’s report, containing an 8-point plan, which provides “solutions to improve public confidence and operational effectiveness” of the Canada Student Loans program. The plan asks for a reduction in interest rates for student loans . It asks for a student loan Ombudsperson office to investigate and redress mistakes and abuses in the system. Other points include providing borrowers with up to date and accurate statements (which, astonishingly, are very difficult to get now), consolidating all loan repayments into one account, enforcing directives to abusive collection agencies, and providing access to grants and debt reduction.

For a novelty song, and tips on media-whoring, check out the rest behind the jump.

The basic premise of the lobby group is fairness. “Our name was deliberately chosen” said Benedict. “Fairness is something all Canadians feel strongly on.” The CSLF believes that government shouldn’t be making money off student loans; that it’s a social service like any other. That isn’t happening now. Government charges borrowers rates from 8 to 11 % while it only pays 4 to 5 % interest itself. The margin is far more than what it takes to run the program. In fact, the government made 315 million dollars in 05/06 from loan interest, and is projected to make over half a billion in the year 09/10. According to Benedict, data shows that interest rates themselves are the reason many students default on their debts. Further, there are serious economic repercussions for us as a society when so many educated young people are significantly burdened with debt, or having their credit ruined due to defaults.

Using the often disturbing stories from borrowers of abusive collection agencies, lack of transparency, and severe financial hardship as hooks, the coalition launched their website and started sending out news releases with Canadian News Wire. This can get pricey – getting your story sent out nationally with a news release agency costs at least $130 a pop. Other than investing some money, the key to lobbying success, said Benedict, is knowing a lot, being focused, and remaining so. A tactic he mentioned that appealed to me was turning something into a news story as opposed to an educational piece. “Targeted, relevant, accurate” he chanted over the phone, as I scribbled.

Benedict works full time, but he and 10 other full-time volunteers pour many hours into research and media relations. Their efforts seem to have payed off. Since April, they’ve had half a million hits on the CSLF website, and countless media exposures. They’ve received endorsements form several MP’s and scores of student organizations including the SFSS, CFS, and CASA (the AMS is notably absent). Most importantly, no federal political party had a policy on student loan interest rates before April. Due to the CSLF’s approaches and advocacy, several now do. I asked Bendict why he thought his group has made a significant impact in a short time, while the student movement had not. He essentially reiterated that effective advocacy can only take place when you collect an immense amount o f detailed meachnistic knowledge, and have a narrow focus which you don’t waver from. Large organizations in the student movement, he obseved, are run by alot of well meaning people with a finite amount of time to devote to any one thing.

Check out the CSLF’s website for Access to Information documents, polling results, news story links, and the coalition’s 8-point plan in detail at you rock out to Mark O’Meara’s student debt song at here .


1 Comment so far

  1. kittie on April 30, 2008 5:37 am

    I feel that is wrong that these collectors that try to collect your student loans and don’t even give you a reasonable payment plan to go with your income, but if you are on soical security only getting $600.00 a month and getting these benefits due to illness and not your working. They should make it a law that would benefit students to be able to repay their loans without interests and reasonable payment methods, and plans that will fit your lifesyle and not to worry can I work without worrying if the loan collector will take money out of your bank account which will be out of your working paycheck or any other income that you receive. Their are so many students that are debt because of student loans. To be honest I feel that college is a scam back stabbing scam that just wants money and don’t care if you get a job or not to even think about paying off the students for which paid that college you went to in the first place

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