Changes will come into effect at the start of the 2019 academic year. Photo: CC/Wikicommons OSAPupdater
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What we know about Ford’s upcoming changes to OSAP, tuition rates, and incidental fees

When Brittany Wilson started school at Carleton University in September 2015 to pursue a neuroscience degree, she knew things wouldn’t be easy for her financially. The bill for her first year, including classes, a meal plan, residence, campus services and textbooks, would total about $18,000.

Through the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP), she qualified for around $10,000 in loans, and thanks to another $2,000 each in savings and scholarships respectively, Wilson just had $4,000 to make up.  

To make ends meet Wilson began working three part-time jobs at once while also balancing school. She made it through, but barely. Wilson worked a full-time job during the summer between her first and second year to save as much money as she could to return to school, but it wasn’t enough.

Since then she’s worked a number of jobs around Ottawa just to pay her monthly living expenses, let alone tuition, hoping one day to return to school.

“I went a solid six, seven months eating straight ramen,” Wilson remembered. “It’s been my status quo … this permanent state of poor.”

Things began to look up at the start of the new year when Wilson finally became an independent student after being out of high school for four years, giving her access to the OSAP low-income grant implemented by Kathleen Wynne’s previous Liberal government. Under the policy, independent students earning $30,000 or less annually or students whose families earn less than $50,000 a year qualify for a free tuition grant. With this grant in hand, she officially re-enrolled in school after a two-and-a-half year hiatus.

But in mid-January, mere weeks after Wilson returned to school, everything changed when Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative provincial government announced sweeping changes to OSAP to come into effect in the 2019-20 academic year and carry into the following one. The changes include slashing the low-income grant Wilson relied on to return to school.

Instead, low-income students like Wilson will receive at least 10 per cent of their help from OSAP in the form of loans, not grants. Additionally, the six-month interest-free period after graduation students could use to repay their loans without accruing interest will be eliminated and the family income cap to apply for OSAP will be reduced from $175,000 to $140,000.

The provincial government’s changes to OSAP are one part of a package of shifts to the ecosystem of Ontario universities and colleges, announced by Minister of Training, Colleges of Universities Merrilee Fullerton at a press conference in Toronto on Jan. 17. These changes include a 10 per cent tuition reduction and an opt-out policy for incidental fees on campus.

Restructuring OSAP

Wilson’s future in the post-secondary world now looks rocky at best, and she isn’t alone: Over 235,000 Ontario post-secondary students received free tuition through OSAP in 2018, according to a press release from the previous Liberal government in May, representing 40 per cent of Ontario post-secondary students.

Meanwhile, the auditor general’s report on government spending inefficiencies from December 2018 found just over 440,000 Ontario students received a total of $1.7 billion in OSAP funding in the 2017-18 academic year, 98 per cent of that in grants and the remaining two per cent in loans. This represents about 85 per cent of Ontario post-secondary students, according to enrollment numbers from the Council of Ontario’s Universities.

The Ford government traced the motive for these changes to that same report.

Auditor Bonnie Lysyk found that the Liberal government’s changes to OSAP—including the free tuition grant—“cost considerably more than the province anticipated,” pointing out that OSAP grants would cost the government more than $2 billion annually by the 2020-21 academic year.

Moreover, the report found that while OSAP usage jumped by 24 per cent and 27 per cent among university and college students, respectively, enrollment had increased by one per cent at Ontario universities and two per cent at colleges.

But other MPPs see the changes to OSAP in a different light.

“This is mean-spirited … and I think it’s disingenuous for the government to be marketing this as a measure to help students,” said NDP MPP for Ottawa Centre Joel Harden. “This will dramatically hurt the lowest income students and … graduates and that’s unconscionable.”

At a roundtable discussion at the U of O on Jan. 18, Scarborough-Guildwood Liberal MPP Mitzie Hunter took aim at the restructuring of OSAP, among the government’s other prospective changes.

“To revert back to a system where there’s higher student loans, higher debt burden, faster interest, it’s really taking away some of the motivation (to pursue post-secondary education),” Hunter, who was previously the minister of advanced education and skills development, told the group. “Some of the underrepresented groups that were typically not accessing (post-secondary education) started to … for the first time. What happens to that talent?”

Jane Dukes, a third-year political science student at the U of O and provincial membership officer for the University of Ottawa Young Liberals, said she was concerned by the elimination of the six month grace period following graduation.

Dukes currently receives OSAP funding in the form of grants but expects to have to use loans next year.

“(The grace period) helps people get on their feet after university,” she said. “It takes a toll on your mental health … if you’re always thinking about paying back your debts.”  

“They’re putting a Band-Aid on a (major problem) and it’s not the right type of Band-Aid,” Wilson said of the government’s changes to OSAP. “It’s going to fall off after your first shower.”

Tuition down 10 per cent, but concerns over dip in quality of education

Another integral change coming to Ontario college and university campuses next year is a 10 per cent tuition decrease. These changes will not apply to international students and the government will not offset the loss of revenue to universities caused by these decreases.

At the U of O, a first-year undergraduate student pursuing an art, science, health sciences or social science degree pays just over $3,382 in tuition per semester this year, meaning they’d pay about $338 less. Meanwhile, students pursuing an engineering degree pay an average of $5,184 for tuition per semester, translating into a reduction of $518. Students in the Telfer School of Management pay an average of $4,150 per semester, meaning they’d pay about $410 less.

“Because (universities and colleges) won’t make up that money from the government, they’re going to have to make tough decisions,” said Nour Alideeb, Ontario chairperson for the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS).

Alideeb said she’s worried faculty and staff could be cut, class sizes could grow, and on-campus services could disappear. She also speculated universities could move to raise tuition for international students to make up for the loss of revenue, which does not currently have a cap. International students in Ontario pay an average tuition of $33,000 a year as of May 2018, according to the Globe and Mail.

“Students will always get the short end of the stick because the government isn’t investing in post-secondary education,” Alideeb added.

While the U of O administration declined an interview request, provost and vice-president academic affairs David Graham said in a press release the university is assessing how the policy will impact the U of O’s budget and operations.

“Over the last few years, we have undertaken an important review of our operating budget and procedures and as a result, we have improved our ability to address challenges such as these,” Graham wrote.

At the first Board of Governors meeting of the year on Jan. 28, it was acknowledged that tuition decreases will lead to a significant budget shortfall for the university in years to come. They also said there’s been little communication on the new policies from the government and some board members expressed concern about the university’s ability to form a concrete financial plan without further information.

Students can opt-out of ancillary fees

Within the new framework introduced by the government in the 2019-20 academic year, students will also be able to choose online which “non-essential” incidental fees outside of tuition they pay into and which they do not, dubbed the ‘Student Choice Initiative.’

“Student fees in Ontario can range up to $2,000 per year, and, too often, force students to pay for services they do not use and organizations they do not support,” Fullerton said at the press conference on Jan. 17.

In an accompanying press release, the government said walksafe programs (foot patrol at the U of O), health and counselling, athletics and recreation, and academic support will all be deemed essential. On Feb. 1, Fullerton also confirmed on Twitter that transit passes will be mandatory.

In a slideshow dated Feb. 4 that appears to have been presented by the Ministry of Colleges, Training and Universities, first obtained and reported by the Varsity on Feb. 5, additional services defined as essential include career services, student buildings, student ID cards, transcripts, convocation processes and financial aid offices. The presentation notes students can opt-out of health and dental plans if they provide proof of existing coverage, a policy that already exists at the U of O, and co-op and field trip fees will not be impacted.

All other fees not included above would not be mandatory. This means full-time undergraduate students at the U of O would be able to opt-out of about $115 a semester, while full-time graduate students could opt-out of about $110.

Here’s where these numbers come from.

Full-time undergraduate students at the U of O pay an average of $270 in incidental fees per semester, not including the U-Pass and collective health insurance plan they pay $415 and $234 respectively in the fall semester, both deemed mandatory. The Career Centre only students in the Telfer School of Management pay $109 a semester for is also not included in this number, as it is deemed mandatory.

Broken down, this includes a fee of just over $100 a semester to the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (SFUO), which includes funds to the SFUO and their service centres, the CFS, campus media, and clubs, among others. Graduate students pay just over $110 a semester to the Graduate Students Association of the University of Ottawa (GSAED). Based on the government’s press releases and presentation, the vast majority of these fees would not be deemed mandatory.

Additionally, only undergraduate students pay a fee ranging from $0 to $25 for faculty associations per semester, an average of about $10. Based on the government’s press releases and presentation, these fees would not be deemed mandatory.

Full-time undergraduate students also pay $155 a semester to cover student services while full-time graduate students pay $96. This includes funds for health services, sports services and the university centre. Based on the government’s press releases and presentation, these fees would be deemed mandatory.

According to the presentation, individual institutions will be responsible for monitoring compliance and students will be able to opt-out online while paying tuition. Students can also opt back in at a later date. Fees must also not be bundled together to encompass multiple services.

Fear over future of student unions and campus groups 

Paige Booth, acting president of the SFUO, called the policy “reckless and harmful” in an email to the Fulcrum.

“Minister Fullerton spoke on how this announcement was “for students” when really it is the opposite,” she said. “Allowing students to opt-out of student services reduces student voices and representation.”

In response, the SFUO signed a letter with more than 75 student unions from across the country condemning the government’s move.

“Our ask is simple: we want the decision implementing the Student Choice Initiative reversed until proper consultation,” they wrote.

As first reported by the Varsity’s Andy Takagi, Fullerton could not cite a single student group or university the government consulted with on tuition cuts when he asked. In replies to Takagi’s tweet on this question, Michele Di Franco, vice-president of the uOttawa Students for Free Speech club, said his club suggested the opt-out policy to Ford.

Elijah Bedassie, a third-year philosophy and political science student who is the president of the club, confirmed that they originally brought up the idea at a roundtable with the Ford government in August 2018, where similar clubs from York University and the University of Toronto were also present.

This roundtable led to the development of the government’s free speech policies, which required Ontario post-secondaries to develop and implement policies protecting free speech on campus by the start of this year or risk funding cuts.

Bedassie said his club pointed out that students fund “extremist groups,” including the Ontario Public Interest Research Group (OPIRG), an organization formed through a referendum in 1977 that works to support social, economic and environmental justice. Funding for OPIRG is collected under the umbrella of the SFUO payment, where undergraduate students pay $4.02 a semester and graduate students $2.81.

“A lot of the groups that want to shut down free speech on campus happen to be funded through public interest research groups … and I thought it was absurd that we were being compelled to fund them,” he alleged, adding OPIRG funds the Revolutionary Student Movement (RSM) at the U of O.

Padraic O’Brien, campus relations coordinator with OPIRG, noted students can already opt-out of funding OPIRG by visiting their office during a period of first two weeks in each semester, usually in November or March. O’Brien said OPIRG only sees an average of 15 students do so each semester.

“OPIRG’s mandate is to support social justice, particularly through service to marginalized communities, so for those who uphold the status quo and don’t tolerate dissidence, that’s enough to receive the label of extremism,” he said. “This is natural for an organization like us.”

O’Brien also addressed Bedassie’s critique of their approach to free speech, confirming OPIRG does fund the RSM $500 annually because they reflect the organization’s mandate, along with four other groups.

“We see the argument of free speech restriction as having been manufactured by Conservatives to turn attention away from the real social-economic obstacles to freedom and equality that we have to deal with in our society,”

Bedassie noted his club was not referring to all incidental fees in his conversations at the roundtable, just funding for OPIRG. He also said he thinks the government could’ve handled the policy better, by not introducing a tuition cut and the opt-out policy at the same time.

While the uOttawa Campus Conservatives did not respond to requests for an interview or comment, the Ontario PC Campus Association echoed Bedassie in a Facebook post, also taking aim at the CFS.

“While everyone has the right to choose to contribute to a political group, no one should be forced to fund political activism against their will,” they wrote.

Protests erupt across the province

While more information continues to roll in as to how the provincial government’s move to restructure OSAP, decrease tuition by 10 per cent and allow students to opt-out of incidental fees will impact the post-secondary sector, some students are showing no sign of backing down in their disagreement with the policies.

There have been three protests in Ottawa so far: One at the Human Rights Monument on Elgin Street on Jan. 22, another on Parliament Hill on Jan. 28, and a third nationwide protest on Feb. 4 at Parliament Hill. Meanwhile, as of Feb. 3 there were about 240,000 signatures on a petition posted to Change.org to stop Ford’s changes to OSAP.

“We need our own Maple Spring,” NDP MPP Harden said, referring to widespread protests in Quebec in 2012 against a proposal by the provincial government to raise tuition by 75 per cent from the 2012-2013 academic year to the 2016-2017 year, encouraging students to connect with workers and unions on campus and continue protesting. “That’s a powerful alliance.”

With files from Eric Davison.

Updated Feb. 6 at 12:40 p.m. to add further information about the government’s Student Choice Initiative.