Government proposes free tuition for low-income families

On Feb. 25, the Ontario government unveiled the 372 page, 2016 Ontario Budget, entitled “Jobs for Today and Tomorrow”. Among other plans, the budget reveals that Premier Kathleen Wynne’s government will overhaul the current system of financial aid distribution.

Last year, in preparation for the release of the Ontario budget, the province launched a program called “Budget Talks”, a collaborative online tool that allows residents of Ontario to “pitch” their ideas on a variety of topics. This has been the second consecutive year of the program; between December 8 to January 31, 1,732 ideas were submitted, 53,402 votes were cast and 4,340 comments were made. Of all the ideas submitted, the largest number (325) was in regards to education, clearly stating a need for direct changes.

This is not, of course, a change that has happened over night. This development comes as a major victory for student advocates and organizations like the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance (OUSA) that have advocated for changes to the way the Province allocates financial aid to students pursuing post-secondary education.

Tuition will become free for students from low-income families (income of 50,000 or less) in Ontario.

“We’re extremely proud of the advocacy we’ve done and our ability to work with the government to enact these major improvements for students,” said OUSA President Spencer Nestico-Semianiw, in a statement following the reveal of the 2016 budget.

BUSU’s Vice-President of External Affairs Antonio Sergi is one of the representatives from seven member schools within OUSA that worked to lobby the Provincial government on changes to financial aid and access to post-secondary education.

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“Not only as a member of OUSA, but as a first generation student, I am ecstatic about the announcement”, said Sergi. “As someone who has seen OUSA grow an incredible amount especially over the past four years, it is incredible to see how the government has taken the direct input of students that is found within our policy and lobbying and implementing changes to make Post Secondary Education more accessible and affordable while still maintaining high quality.”

The changes to the student aid program looks to offer more grants for university and college students, and claims that these grants will cover average tuition for families making $50,000 or less. While the 30 per cent off tuition program, which launched in 2012, will be scrapped, the government claims that “no Ontario student will receive less than they are currently eligible for”.

Access to the 30 per cent off tuition grant is currently limited to students that have been out of high school for less than four years, which isolates mature students. Within the new system, funding will no longer be reserved for recent high school graduates. Other changes include alterations to the expected tuition contributions from parents and spouses that are used to decide funding and access to interest-free loans.

The program promises that most students will have “less debt” overall, even extending to higher-income families, as this new system looks to establish a limit to yearly student debt, capping it at $10,000 annually.

While the claim that “students from families with incomes of less than $50,000 will have no provincial student debt” is ambitious, there remains a lot of ambiguity in regards to how this new program will be integrated.

“There will still be room to grow,” stated Sergi. “Many of the plans outlined in this announcement will take time to implement and further consultation with administrative leaders will be necessary to make sure the new system is sustainable, and will leave a solid foundation of future generations.”

While many students have reacted positively to the news, political opposition remains confident that this new proposed program is not the best program for Ontario’s students.

Ontario Conservative party leader Patrick Brown believes that while the Liberal government claims to help its students, “it is really just canceling one program to pay for another”.

Similarly, NDP leader Andrea Horwath believes the program does not reach far enough.

“We still have the lowest per capita funding and still have serious concerns about access”, said Horwath. “Hopefully this will help a little bit in terms of access but again, we’re still not doing very well when it comes to post-secondary education support overall.”

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