Minister Deb Matthews on Millennials, Education, and the new OSAP

Minister Deb Matthews / News.Ontario.ca

Ontario’s new OSAP program is about taking down financial barriers, says Deb Matthews, Minister of Advanced Education and Skills Development, and Deputy Premier. Minister Matthews was at Brock last week to announce a $16 million investment in the University’s capacity for innovation.

Ontario is no stranger to high tuition. With an average cost of $8,114 per year, students enjoy the highest undergraduate tuition of any province. But starting next year, Ontario will be the first and only province to offer free tuition for a significant portion of its students.

Under the new OSAP program, students from households earning less than $50,000 will pay no tuition. Additionally, thousands of students from middle-income households will also benefit from severely reduced tuition costs.

The move towards free tuition began after a review of the current OSAP program showed it wasn’t increasing participation rates from lower income households, said Minister Matthews.

“We’re doing the right thing, which is focusing on those who face real financial barriers and getting those barriers taken down,” said Minister Matthews. “Financial barriers should never prevent someone from going on. You should be able to go to post-secondary because you’ve got great potential, not because you’ve got a fat wallet.”

Funding will come from existing education tax credits, which will be scrapped, and the current investments already in place through OSAP.

“When you actually look at who is using the tax credits, it is more upper income people than lower income who were benefiting the most from those tax credits, so they didn’t contribute to the goal, which is increased access for kids in lower income families,” said Matthews.

“You can’t talk about tuition without talking about financial aid. So we’re actually bringing those two together.”

The repurposing of the funds will create a new program “that is easy to understand, that is predictable, that is more generous, and that is more progressive,” continued the minister.

The Ontario Government has stressed the new program is merely a repurposing of existing funds, and that by using the money already allocated towards education in a smarter way, thousands of Ontario students will be able to pursue a post-secondary education without paying a dime.

The provincial government has also promised that no eligible students will receive less aid than they do currently under the 30% Ontario Tuition Grant.

Matthews likened Ontario’s new education plan to the program in place for veterans returning from World War II.

“My dad was a vet from WW2 and returning vets had free tuition and free living expenses. Their university was covered,” said the Minister. “My dad came from a working class family of 10 kids, there was no way he would have had a university education if it hadn’t been for that particular program at that particular time.”

The removal of financial barriers is “hugely disruptive from a social mobility perspective,” said Matthews. “I just thought, ‘why do we need a war to make that happen?’”

Millennials, even those with a post-secondary education, do not face particularly attractive employment prospects. They are up against record levels of debt after graduation, and a job market stifled by insecurity.

Stagnating wages combined with an ever increasing cost of living leaves them struggling. Their parents  were able to move from post-secondary education to a secure entry level job, and eventually to home ownership. Millennials are not necessarily afforded those same opportunities.

This is partially due to how much more common a post-secondary education is today. In 1990 only half of Canadians under 30 had a post-secondary education. By 2011, this was up to 75.5 per cent.

“There’s no question that in the last 20-30 years more and more people are going to university, more and more people are getting a degree. And that wasn’t the case in your parents’ time as much,” said the minister.

But this doesn’t devalue education, Matthews continued, it just doesn’t set someone apart as much as it used to.

The upside to this, says the minister, is a more highly educated workforce. “We’ve got people with the skills they need to be successful. So is it a marketing advantage when you go out and try to get a job? Maybe not as much as it used to be. But does that mean the education is any less valuable? I don’t think so.”

The key to a more highly educated population is making education more accessible for everyone.

Ontario’s new plan is a more efficient way to socialize the costs of education. The current system straddles the line between the United States, where students are expected to bear the full cost of their tuition and graduate with tens of thousands of dollars of debt, and many countries in Europe, where education is fully socialized and students graduate debt-free.

In these countries a degree is not see as a commodity to aid in job prospects, but as a public service. They believe in socializing the costs of higher-education because the benefits brought on by a brighter work-force are something everyone shares in.

But for now Ontario will focus on helping those who suffer the greatest need, said Minister Matthews.

Ontario’s new OSAP program is about fostering opportunity among those who are most disenfranchised, said the minister. Canadians fortunate enough to come from higher income households won’t see much benefit, but that’s okay, because they don’t need any.

“So by weighting financial aid to the lowest income students, I’m focused on raising participation rates for indigenous students, for kids from immigrant families, and those who really aren’t participating as much as the rest of the students,” said Minister Matthews. “That’s my priority, it’s about making sure everyone has the same opportunity.”

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