Premier Ford’s Vision for Unaffordable Education: How new changes to OSAP worsen student welfare
Being a postsecondary student in Ontario has never been easy. Our domestic undergraduate tuition fees are the highest in the country, averaging $8,454 per year. At York, though our fees are just below the provincial average at $7,743, commuters fork over more than $12,000 a year and those living away from home are saddled with more than $22,000 when you add the cost of food, transit, textbooks, and extra-curricular expenses.†
What’s more, government aid offers little help. Tying OSAP relief to parental income leaves many students who are financially independent floundering. Even the Wynne government’s historic delivery of free tuition for low-income students came with fine print: the province was only covering up to $6,160. This January, the Ford government announced a series of changes to postsecondary funding in Ontario, somehow managing to make things a lot worse.
A 10-percent cut to tuition was their deceptively “progressive” lead-in to a heap of regressive reforms. Free-tuition grants for students with a family income below $50,000 will be scrapped in favour of a grant-and-loan program, through which they will only receive up to 82 percent in non-repayable grants. Students from families making upward of $140,000 per year will no longer be eligible for grants, only repayable loans—a pinch to the current threshold of $175,000.
These changes clearly benefit the wealthiest students, giving many a $700 to $1,000 break on their tuition when they would have neither needed nor qualified for OSAP in the first place. Meanwhile, students from high-to middle-income households who are footing the bill for their education will have less non-repayable money in their pockets, and students from low-income households will have bigger debts on their backs once they finish their degree.
To rub salt in the wound, OSAP’s new repayment rules will make it harder to tackle that debt upon graduation. Currently, students have some breathing room following the completion of their studies to find a job and steady income before they start racking up interest on their Ontario loans. Under these reforms, that six-month interest-free grace period will be axed. Students will now be forced to pay off their loans immediately or risk being buried in interest fees. Effectively, the Ford government is buckling students into a speeding car, racing them toward crushing debt, and cutting the brake lines while they’re at it.
The most insidious of these changes is a new opt-out system whereby students will no longer be required to pay for “non-essential non-tuition fees.” Academic and career support; health and counselling services; walk-safe programs, like York’s goSAFE; and athletics and recreation will all remain untouched. However, it will be up to the discretion of universities to define its essential and non-essential programs, potentially making it open season on campus clubs and associations, student government, and student journalism.
At the risk of sounding cynical, it seems as though the Ford government is attempting to put a chokehold on many of the groups that criticize and organize against their party’s policies. Cultural associations for minorities, LGBTQ and feminist advocacy groups, as well as student unions and campus newspapers have not historically been the biggest fans of conservative ideology.
Regardless, establishing opportunities to shrink funding for these groups certainly means that students will lose out on important platforms and resources to advocate for their own interests and shape their postsecondary experience. Everyone has their complaints about student unions, but it’s difficult to argue that political representation for students isn’t important or that student unions don’t play a vital role in campus life.
Considering the miserable future that the Ford government is creating for postsecondary education, a 10-percent tuition cut is hardly the help students need. Students need on-campus resources that contribute to a diverse, robust, and supportive university life. Students need adequate financial aid so they won’t have to take on a second or third job, insurmountable debt, and the mental and physical toll of financial insecurity. Specifically, students from low-income backgrounds need affordable paths toward postsecondary education, especially students of colour who already experience barriers to access and are disproportionately harmed by these policies.
A dismal job market, recently-frozen minimum wage, and increasingly expensive housing market await students embarking on their postgraduate journeys. With their vision for a more unaffordable university education, the Ford government is effectively worsening the already-precarious lives of Ontario students.
† These figures were drawn from a 2018 study by Maclean’s.