The provincial government announced plans to overhaul Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP), prompting almost immediate backlash from many students and their representatives.
Ontario, under premier Doug Ford, will remove free tuition provisions for low-income families, reduce tuition fees by 10 per cent, eliminate the existing six-month grace period for students to repay their loans without interest and shift to providing more loans than grants. Students will have lowered tuition fees overall, but will need to repay a greater portion of their funding as well as interest if they are unable to repay their debt immediately after graduating.
This decision comes as the province claims the existing OSAP is unsustainable and raising costs without providing significantly increased enrollment.
Ford posted a brief video on Twitter highlighting his administration’s changes to education, summarized by the accompanying text:
“Last year, we took action to protect free speech on campus, and got students back to class by ending the strike at York University,” said Ford. “In 2019, we’re making life more affordable by lowering college and university tuition fees by 10% as part of our plan to put students first.”
While Ford describes this decision as increasing the affordability of education, not all agree. In a statement released by Brock University Students’ Union (BUSU) the same day as the changes were announced, BUSU disputed this, claiming the move will adversely affect students.
“While a decrease in tuition will provide some financial relief to all students, the government’s decision to reduce OSAP eligibility and replace grant funding with loans will impact students who need it the most,” the statement read. “Additionally, student loans on their own will not address the financial burden placed on many students who are unable to take on high levels of debts.”
The statement also quoted BUSU President Aidan Hibma, who said, “a reduction in tuition is going to benefit all students across the province of Ontario. Nevertheless, the changes made to OSAP are quite concerning as government’s decision to move back from grants to loans and the time frame in which interest on those loans begins to accumulate will have serious implications on student debt.”
Students who have organized protests, petitions and otherwise voiced dissent for the changes in OSAP echo Hibma’s concern. On Jan. 18, students gathered to protest about these changes at Western University. A much larger demonstration will take place in Toronto on Jan. 25. This response is not unusual, mirroring the protests in Quebec when the Quebec government chose to raise tuition in 2012.
Ontario’s New Democratic Party (NDP) also released a statement Jan. 17 condemning the changes as, “less help, higher costs for students who need grants and loans for school.”
The statement consulted NDP Colleges and Universities critic Chris Glover, who has accused the changes of being deceitful, not actually supporting students but increasing tuition and larger class sizes.
“The Ford government is going after low-income and middle-income students by cutting grants, making loan support harder to get, and cranking up the amount of interest they’ll pay,” the statement quoted Glover. “This is going to mean more debt, holding back young people already desperate for relief from debt.”
The proposed changes have raised concerns beyond affordability in that they may negatively affect student unions, clubs and other programs on campuses such as personal counselling and academic resources.
“This looks like a targeted attack on student unions and some student programming, and we’re all waiting to see what programs and services will be targeted by Ford,” said Glover.
BUSU has also noted the impact the proposed changes may have at Brock, specifically.
With the government’s decision to allow students to opt-out of student association fees, BUSU is concerned about the impact that this will have on its ability to provide critical services that support students’ and their mental health, safety, and student experience needs,” BUSU’s Jan. 17 statement read.
In moving forward under these proposed changes, Brock President Gervan Fearon’s Jan. 21 statement released to the Brock community provides guidance.
“At the Jan. 16, 2019, session of Senate, I stated that Canadians have a tremendous capacity to deal with change and unanticipated events because of our weather. Specifically, we know that when we go into a skid due to poor road conditions, the best way to recover is to focus and steer in the direction you are ultimately aiming to go,” said Fearon. “We must keep our focus on the priorities of supporting excellence in teaching and learning; building our research capacity; supporting university-community engagement and regional community and economic development; and fostering an inclusive and respectful work and learning environment. The Ontario Government’s announcement of Jan. 17 does not make this task easier; however, it does inform our operating budget capacity, and constrains the rate by which we make progress in relation to these priorities.
According to Fearon, the Brock community will continue to receive updates regarding the impact of the proposed changes on the university as more information is obtained and milestones are met. When Brock receives additional information about the Ford government’s announcement, they will conduct a thorough analysis of the impact of the OSAP overhaul on Brock and prepare to adapt to the new reality the institution faces.
“We will be developing a budget guidance framework that incorporates the new budgetary realities, along with requests for all units across the University to explore options for achieving the new budget numbers,” said Fearon. “Simultaneously, we will be looking at broad University initiatives that may further support either increased revenues or cost-saving initiatives, and will be looking to you for ideas, assistance and support throughout this process. We will be bringing forward discussion items to Senate and the Board to ensure that the University’s academic and administrative governance processes are fully engaged throughout these efforts.”
Despite focusing largely on the impact these changes will have on the university’s budget and financial concerns, Fearon does not overlook the other concerns of community members this will impact.
“We are a ‘people’ organization in all that we do. We have to put our students, faculty and staff at the centre of our considerations as we endeavor to work within new operating budgetary realities facing the University,” said Fearon.