Student aid and tuition fee cuts increase inequity

With students in Canada heading back to class this week, tens of thousands in Ontario will be nervously eyeing their dwindling bank accounts, as a result of the Conservative government’s cuts to the province’s student aid programme.

On an individual basis the cuts range from a few hundred dollars to thousands of dollars, as in the case of fourth-year student at Trent University in Ontario, Lindsay Gammon.

The changes were announced last January as part of a general overhaul of funding for Ontario’s 24 colleges and 21 universities, which saw the Ontario Student Assistance Program cut by about CA$600 million (US$449 million) or 40%, to CA$1.4 billion (US$1 billion) per year.

According to the Ross Romano, Ontario’s minister of training, colleges and universities, the changes and cuts are part of Premier Doug Ford’s government’s priority to “make sure Ontario is open for business”.

The cuts to the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) go further than reversing the scheme the previous Liberal government put in place during its last full year in power. Under that scheme, only 2% of OSAP grants were in the form of loans compared to 40% the year before. According to the minister, “the programme we inherited was unsustainable”.

Gammon, who is majoring in philosophy with a concentration in applied ethics, would not have been able to attend university without OSAP. She lives with her disabled mother, who receives Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) and is unable to help her financially, with the average ODSP payment being CA$958 per month. Last year, OSAP paid for Gammon’s tuition, books and transportation from her home in the Toronto suburb of Oshawa to school.

“It was very tight, but it was enough to get by,” she says.

On 19 June, she and thousands of students like her received letters telling them what the OSAP grant for this school year would be. Last year, Gammon received CA$13,212. “I had heard about the cuts but was shocked when I saw that it was going to be reduced by CA$4,000.”

Worse was to come. Three days later, the Ford government sent a second round of letters. Gammon’s OSAP had been reduced further, resulting in a total reduction of CA$4,631 for this academic year.

The minister has pointed out that the changes announced last January included a cut of 10% in colleges and universities’ tuition fees to help soften the blow. David Graham, vice-president academic and provost of the University of Ottawa, says, however, that this cut will cost the university CA$33 million. “It will obviously make it more difficult for us to offer financial aid to both students who have had their OSAP cut from last year and this year’s new students.”

Matthew Gerrits, vice-president of the Waterloo Undergraduate Student Association, says that the cuts to tuition fees do not equal the cuts to OSAP.

“OSAP was designed to provide access to post-secondary education regardless of social class. The expansion of OSAP in 2016 led to an increase in older and indigenous students.”

‘Benefiting wealthier students’

He said that while the cuts to tuition fees do not equal the cuts to OSAP, they will benefit those wealthier students who do not access OSAP.

The University of Ottawa has special concerns, says Graham. Because it is the only university to offer programmes in French, Francophones in Northern, Southwestern and Central Ontario come to it to study in Canada’s other official language. “Cuts to OSAP have a direct impact on these students because they do not have the option to save money by living at home while going to university,” he says.

Gammon’s grant of CA$8,581 is enough to cover her fall tuition of CA$3,930. Some books she has been able to download from the internet. She has spent CA$128 on books, with one on Symbolic Logic costing CA$90 on its own. But since she cannot afford the other books, she hopes professors have spare copies or that other students can share theirs. Additionally, she has budgeted CA$450 to pay for transportation, food and other bills for each semester.

Accordingly, by the time she pays her tuition (CA$3,930) for the winter semester, she will have spent CA$8,888, which is CA$300 more than her grant, without having purchased any books for the winter semester.

“I’ve spoken to the bank about a loan, but I don’t have anyone who can co-sign for one,” she says. When I asked her how she plans on making ends meet, she answered with the question, “What do I have to sacrifice for my future? I want to go to law school and have to save up for the Law School Aptitude Test. Should I not eat for the last week of the month?”

As a future ethicist, Gammon said when she tries to think ethically about what the government is doing, she cannot see any long-term benefit.

“It makes no sense from an economic point of view to have, say, one half of students drop out because they cannot take on more debt. It hurts Ontario because taxes will have to go up to pay those debts and the students who dropped out won't be able to get jobs.”

But the funding squeeze is not her only concern: So too is documentation. At the end of the interview she said: “I’m an indigenous student, a Metis. It used to be that on the OSAP form I simply had to check the box.”

The new rules require her to produce a Metis Identification Card and provide other documents. “For family reasons, I am not registered. However, the change in application makes me feel as if I cannot identify with who I am, an indigenous student,” she said with steel in her voice.