Ontario makes tuition cuts but no plan for the shortfalllobbied the government to subsidise costs, lower tuition fees or create more grants for deserving and needy students.
Last month under the new Progressive Conservative government, their requests were answered: tuition fees at public universities and colleges will be reduced by 10% starting in September 2019 and any future increases will be frozen until the 2020-21 academic year.
While this may appear positive at first glance, many are critiquing Premier Doug Ford’s decision and are concerned about what this really means for Ontario’s post-secondary institutions, students and the broader education system in the province of Ontario.
On 17 January 2019, Dr Merrilee Fullerton, Ontario’s minister of training, colleges and universities, announced a 10% reduction in tuition fees for Canadian students that will not be matched by government funding. This will remove US$250 million and US$61 million from the university and college budgets, respectively.
In addition to these cuts, the government also announced large cuts to existing tuition grants, a decrease in non-repayable grants and the complete removal of other grant funding. The majority of the grant reductions affect the already controversial Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP), weakening student access to tuition cost assistance.
In the past, students from families earning US$133,000 or less per year were eligible to receive funding from OSAP in the form of loans or grants directed to tuition and living expenses. The cut-off has now been reduced to US$106,000.
Previously, some eligible students could have the full cost of their tuition covered by non-repayable grants; now these grants will only be available to families earning less than US$37,700. Everyone else will receive funding in the form of a loan, but rarely for their full tuition costs. This indicates the full cancellation of the ‘free tuition’ programme, which started in 2016 and was used by 230,000 students.
In addition to requiring more students to take out loans, OSAP will be removing the six-month repayment grace period for graduating students. Rather than having six months before they are required to pay back OSAP loans, students will be charged interest immediately after graduation.
Overall, these changes are bad news for students. Although the 10% tuition fee cut will offer US$500 and US$260 per year savings for individual university and college students respectively, students in need of OSAP will face a larger challenge of paying back more debt – and will be required to pay it back right away. This will add increased stress to the already daunting task of finding meaningful work after graduation.
For others – namely, the 230,000 students that have been taking advantage of the ‘free tuition’ programme since it was announced under the Liberal government in 2016 – this could mean the end of their university or college experience.
Student life cuts
Also announced on 17 January was the introduction of the new optional ‘Student Choice Initiative’. This initiative makes optional the auxiliary fees that went towards student organisations, student services and specialised equipment. This, on the outside, appears to be about choice: giving students the choice to opt out of fees that the government views as ‘non-essential’.
However, according to Nour Alideeb, chairperson of Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario, this decision undercuts the extra-curricular and student movement groups at the universities and seems like “a direct attack on the groups that actually try to hold the government accountable when it comes to student issues”.
Quality of education and student experience
Ontario colleges and universities already receive less funding per student than their counterparts in the other nine provinces of Canada. So now, with additional cuts, institutions are on their own to figure out how to best serve their students with less than what was already less.
So what are the colleges and universities going to do to make up for these losses?
Whatever it is they decide, Minister Fullerton expressed “full confidence in our institutions … [as] they will be able to do what they need to do to change”.
However, according to New Democrat MPP Chris Glover, a former York University professor, this will mean “larger classes and fewer professors”, which, of course, suggests a reduction in the quality of the student learning experience and greater challenges for current faculty and lecturers.
With fewer professors and less funding, this will also result in fewer course options and reduced student services.
Others believe international students will be targeted. The new proposal does not include international student fees and international fee increases are unregulated at university institutions and are capped at 20% at Ontario colleges.
Ultimately, tuition fee cuts are not as good as they seem if the government does not support students in other ways. A lack of student services and activities is not worth US$370 per year. The bottom line is that these cutbacks only benefit the government and not the students who need help the most.
Grace Karram Stephenson is a post-doctoral fellow in the department of leadership, higher and adult education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto, Canada. Stefanie Bronson is a current PhD student in higher education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto. She also teaches undergraduate courses in the faculty of kinesiology and physical education.