UPDATE: Fiscal Conservatism in Post-Secondary Education

Photo credits: Steve Russell – Toronto Star

Photo credits: Steve Russell – Toronto Star

In January, Ontario’s provincial government rolled out sweeping reforms to OSAP with the intent of mitigating inefficiencies within the province’s budget. With consequences that adversely affect both post-secondary institutions and students, the Ford government has decidedly opted for fiscal austerity at the expense of accessible education. Among these changes are a 10% reduction in tuition fees at the expense of free tuition for low-income students.  Here are the major changes being implemented by the provincial government:

•   As stated, a 10% reduction in tuition fees for domestic students in 2019/2020, and a freeze on these reduced costs for the 2020/2021 academic year.
•   Elimination of free tuition for low-income students, as the grants that previously covered their expenses will be partially converted into loans. A minimum of 50% of OSAP funding will be in the form of loans, regardless of a student’s economic background.
•   A change in the definition of independent student — students will now need to be out of secondary school for six years (up from the previous four) to avoid having parents’ incomes factored into their funding.
•   Elimination of the six-month, interest free grace period on student loans. Interest will accrue as soon as students finish their programs.
•   Introduction of the “Student Choice Initiative,” which will allow students to opt-out of university fees garnered for “non-essential” services.
•   In regards to family income, the upper threshold for receiving financial assistance has been reduced from $175,000 to $140,000, and the majority of grants will go to students whose families earn less than $50,000 per year.

Students across Ontario have expressed concern over these changes. For one, there is decreased accessibility to postsecondary education for the province’s financially disadvantaged students. In a comment to The Argus, LUSU’s VP Orillia, Theresa VandeBurgt, stated the following:

“The greatest impact is going to be on our marginalized students. Low-income students are at risk of not being able to attend university, or having to make difficult compromises for their education. The “Student Choice Initiative” means that students can potentially choose which fees they wish to opt out of. This means lower quality services, and could put things like our U-Pass, Food Bank, and various centres at risk; services that our most marginalized students rely on due to a system that excludes them. It’s also highly important to note the impact this has on international students. This “cut” in tuition only applies to domestic students; international students will see no decrease in their tuition, rather it is likely to spike as universities will be relying on that income even more.”

The changes to OSAP will eliminate roughly $600 million in non-repayable grants that alleviated the costs of postsecondary education for Ontario’s economically vulnerable students.

Sami Pritchard, the National Executive Representative at CFS Ontario, echoes VandeBurgt’s concerns. In a statement to The Argus, Pritchard said: “it should be noted that students cannot always predict that they will need to access particular students services such as these and other services – by forcing students to choose, this government is putting us, is putting students, in a precarious position. It is student unions who provide space for Indigenous students, for racialized students, for LGBTQ students, for women, for international students, for students with disabilities. Spaces that students need to feel community, to feel safe, to get through their education. We know that [with] this plan students are forced to question whether or not they can even attend school. We know that this will most greatly impact the most marginalized students on our campuses. We know that this will impact workers on our campuses.”

The decrease in tuition costs will create roughly $440 million in lost revenue for Ontario’s colleges and universities, which will disproportionately affect smaller institutions, such as Lakehead, that are more vulnerable to such changes than institutions that see tens of thousands enrolled in their programs. Along these lines, VandeBurgt stated, “For a small, fairly new campus such as Lakehead Orillia, this could impact us tremendously. Another factor to consider is that the changes to OSAP may lower enrolment, affecting revenue even more drastically. It affects Lakehead at large as a Northern institution, with fewer resources and services compared to universities within the GTA.”

Pritchard noted the importance of student unions at smaller and northern-based universities: “We know that the impact of this decision will hit hard on our smallest campuses. We know that this will hit hard on the economy of towns like Orillia who thrive off students giving back to their local economies — accessing housing, accessing local restaurants and staying to work and buy homes. Northern and rural campuses often rely on and work in conjunction with their student unions to build student life and provide a variety of services to students. In places like Thunder Bay and Orillia, where access to diverse services may not exist in the community, students rely on their student union spaces (physical, or created), clubs, events and campaigns to make them feel connected and less alone.”

Considering a decrease in revenue for student unions wrought by the Student Choice Initiative, the services provided by student unions may suffer in quality, effects which will be more noteworthy on northern and smaller university campuses, such as Lakehead Thunder Bay and Orillia.

Regardless of institutional size, the effect of Ford’s OSAP changes will likely include larger class sizes, decreased services, and potentially less program offerings. As Vandeburgt points out, international students may have to make up for this loss in institutional funding. According to the Canadian Federation of Students, international students pay roughly four times what domestic students pay for tuition, a figure which may well grow increasingly disproportionate as Ontario’s postsecondary institutions look to cover their lost revenue.
Though a decrease in institutional funding already places a strain on postsecondary services, Ford’s Student Choice Initiative will have adverse effects on the postsecondary environment as well. As VandeBurgt points out, services such as the U-Pass or the Food Bank may be placed at risk as the Ontario government allows students to opt-out of any fees deemed non-essential. Already faced with the elimination of grant-based free tuition, the loss of these services would create further barriers for Ontario’s economically disadvantaged students.

The student press, as well, is among the services placed at risk by the Student Choice Initiative, as university newspapers are generally funded through student fees. Already faced with stringent operational budgets, student newspapers may lose their capacity to operate effectively, or at all, which would undoubtedly harm free speech on university campuses — something that Ford has previously sought to protect.

In response to these changes and potential consequences, students and student unions have rallied province-wide to express their concerns. On January 25th, hundreds of students marched to Queen’s Park in Toronto in protest. Student unions province-wide have mobilized against these changes since the announcement was made in mid-January. In a comment to The Argus, Pritchard stated that, “Less than 24 hours after the announcement, the CFS held an emergency rally at Queen’s Park with students from across the province, including those from Thunder Bay and Orillia who were in town for the Ontario General Meeting. Since then, we have seen countless rallies and events throughout the province, even receiving messages of solidarity from other provinces and countries.”

Pritchard also mentioned that CFS has begun a “We The Students” campaign, which aims to provide more grants than loans, eliminate tuition fees, increase public funding for postsecondary institutions, and defend the right to organize, among other things.
Concerning action taken in Orillia, VandeBurgt states, “LUSU Orillia hosted a well-attended rally against these cuts on January 22nd, outside the Orillia Opera house. We also hosted an open forum on January 28th to discuss these changes, and field student questions and concerns. I personally had a meeting to discuss these cuts with Orillia MPP Jill Dunlop, which was cancelled at the last minute and I have yet to hear back on rescheduling. Letters will be written to local MPs, as well as Premier Doug Ford. More student action is being planned here in Orillia, as well as across the province.”


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