Student Organizations Object To Government's Proposed Changes To OSAP And Fees

student protest
The logos and signatures of student governments and their leaders, attached to a recent protest letter to the Ontario government.

Today (January 29), together with over 75 postsecondary institutions across Canada representing over one million students, St. Clair’s Student Representative Council (SRC) signed a letter voicing collective disappointment with the provincial government’s January 17th announcement of assorted policies affecting colleges and universities.

The announced changes to OSAP, tuition and ancillary (non-tuition) fees “raise red flags for students and their families,” the letter states.

The signatory student governments believe the government’s proposals lacked proper consultation with students and were a step backwards for postsecondary education.

The campus councils also point out that, annually, “hundreds of students are elected across Ontario on promises to keep institutions accountable, to ensure the health and safety of students, and fill crucial servicing gaps that the institutions do not provide — such as transit passes, health and dental plans, peer-to-peer support, on-campus media, support services like food banks, and more. The government’s proposed ‘Student Choice Initiative' puts all of this at risk and threatens the postsecondary student experience.”

This is not just a provincial concern, say the student governments. This could set a national precedent that has a measurable impact on the student experience and campus culture across the country. Students will be less safe, more vulnerable to failure and less able to gain the skills and work-related experience they’ll need to find jobs after graduation.

The letter was addressed to Conservative Premier Doug Ford and Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities Merrilee Fullerton. It reads:

Dear Premier Ford and Minister Fullerton:

We are writing today on behalf of the 1,300,000-plus postsecondary students across Canada who have closely watched Ontario over the last week.

We are student leaders. We have one job in this role, and that’s to listen to students. We talk to hundreds of students every week, and we take action to try to help them. When their tuition is too high and they need a second job to pay for rent, we listen. When they have a mental health concern and need help, we listen. When they want to create a club for LGBTQ+ advocacy on campus, we listen. It’s an amazing process of students talking to students, and it’s so important to the functioning framework of campuses across our country.

The government’s recent changes to the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) are disappointing, to say the least, for students and families. While we support the government’s goal in making postsecondary education more affordable in Ontario, the announced changes raise flags for students, families and anyone interested in the province’s ability to stay competitive in years to come. We firmly believe it lacked proper consultation with students. Your government’s objective was trumpeted as “providing financial assistance to those who need it most,” which is why we were shocked when the policy reflected the exact opposite. Students have seen a direct reduction in grant-based funding at every income level. Students universally feel that this decision is a firm step backwards.

To start, the changes to OSAP move away from non-repayable grants in favour of loans. This will have the immediate impact of forcing middle and low-income families to take on a bigger debt-load, meaning only the richest families will see savings from a cut in tuition. To compound our concerns about loans versus grants, a decision to end the six-month interest-free grace period on student loans after graduation will cause deeper problems. In sum, these changes mean students will be forced to take on more loans, and interest will start accumulating in the months they should have been afforded a grace period to secure employment.

Yet beyond our collective concerns on OSAP, we want to express our collective opposition to a precedent your government is setting surrounding student union fees in Ontario, dubbed the Student Choice Initiative.

Student governments are the democratic voice of students. Each year, hundreds of students are elected across Ontario on promises to keep our institutions accountable, to ensure the health and safety of our students, and fill crucial gaps that our institutions do not provide — such as transit passes, health and dental plans, peer-to-peer support, on-campus press, support services like food banks, and more.

The Student Choice Initiative puts all of this at risk.

First, it assumes that students don’t have the choice in how their student fees are spent. Through consultation with student governments, you will learn that each of us conducts regular referendums related to student fees. Adding an “opt-out” option, then, would be the same as allowing voters to opt-out of paying their taxes to police services or libraries. Elections and referendums allow students to guide their fees, and that brings continuity and stability to student budgeting. Without stable, predictable funding student unions will be forced to end a wide variety of programs and services — everything from mental health to sexual assault supports, and laying off thousands of students that work at on-campus businesses, undermining the protection and creation of jobs on campus. With a ten percent tuition cut and no additional public funding, we know institutions themselves won’t pick up the slack.

This is not just a provincial concern. It could set a national precedent that has a measurable impact on the student experience and campus culture across the country. Students will be less safe, more vulnerable to failure and less able to gain the skills and work-related experience they’ll need to find jobs after graduation.

That last point is especially relevant. This government ran on a campaign to make Ontario “open for business” — committing to creating a business climate that encourages investment, scaling-up and job creation. How can that be done? Chambers of commerce, think tanks, research groups — they all point to a talented and skilled workforce. By making postsecondary less accessible to middle- and low-income families, and by jeopardizing student experience on campus, your government is actively standing in the way of growing that workforce.

We urge this government to sit down with student associations — as well as administrations, labour groups and business networks — to better understand how these changes will create a workforce less prepared and saddled with debt. If postsecondary affordability is the government’s top concern, there are better avenues to address this. Many of those avenues have been advocated by the very student associations signing this letter.

Our ask is simple: We want the decision implementing the Student Choice Initiative reversed until proper consultation is done. The Student Choice Initiative is shown to fall short of this government’s commitment to the people of Ontario and the students who will be the workforce of tomorrow.

If the Ontario government truly wants to move Ontario forward, they must recognize that this initiative will put everyday Ontarians behind.

THE ON-CAMPUS MESSAGE

In a separate, “internal” message to St. Clair students, released shortly after the government’s original announcement, SRC President Holly Nicholson had specifically analyzed the situation from St. Clair’s perspective:

Your Student Representative Council (SRC) has analyzed the announcement made by provincial Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities Merrilee Fullerton on January 17, 2019, regarding a tuition reduction and other matters, and now provides you with this review:

The ten percent reduction in tuition fees for domestic students, to take effect this fall for the 2019-20 academic year, would appear to be advantageous – at least in terms of one’s initial entrance to the postsecondary system.

However, for students who rely upon student assistance (the Ontario Student Assistance Program/OSAP), you should know that changes being made to that provincial system will apply new restrictions to eligibility, the amounts of allocations, and the repayment schedule.

Taken together, the “off-setting” combination of the tuition reduction and the OSAP changes will, in our opinion, carry little – if any – long-term benefit for students (again, especially for those who rely upon student aid).

Another proposal unveiled in the Minister’s announcement was even more alarming. The so-called “Student Choice Initiative” would make many of the current mandatory fees that are tacked on to tuition optional in the future – that students would be allowed to “opt-out” of such fees, if they don’t believe they will be making use of the associated services.

Under that initiative, it appears to be the Ministry’s intention to define such items as the Student Activity Fee currently paid by St. Clair students as non-mandatory and “opt-out-able”. It seems that the Conservative government views student organizations such as the SRC, Student Athletic Association (SAA) and Alumni Association as “non-essential” to the operation of the college.

It is our contention that the services provided by such organizations are, contrary to the government’s apparent position, essential, and that their funding should be secured by having the associated fees designated as mandatory.

Here is just a partial list of the services provided to St. Clair students by the SRC (the SAA and Alumni Association provide many others):

• the administration of a student health plan, providing prescription-drug, vision-care and dental-care coverage to students (that, separately, has always had an opt-out component);

• a food bank to assist cash-strapped students;

• staging awareness weeks and fundraising to assist a variety of charitable causes;

• the representation of students in academic and non-academic disciplinary matters and grade appeals;

• the management – and ownership – of food services throughout the college;

• providing student publications and social media communications;

• the employment of several hundred students annually in part-time, on-campus jobs;

• the management of several college facilities (among them, three student centres and all of the college’s computer labs);

• funding several scholarships and bursaries;

• leading all Orientation activities for new students;

• funding mental health and 24-hour, seven-days-a-week crisis counselling for students;

• entertainment programming;

• overseeing the administrative services of over 30 clubs tied to academic programs;

• liaison with the college’s administration on all policy-and-procedure issues affecting students, including fee negotiations; and, most recently and most importantly,

• entering into partnership with the college as the “lead agency” on property developments. Within the past several years, the SRC has secured the mortgages to build such facilities as a new Student Life Centre and Sports Park, and committed fee revenues to repay such loans.

Unless student organizations are provided with secure, predictable, long-term sources of revenue – guaranteed by mandatory fees – those current services and future facility developments will be jeopardized, and on-campus student employment opportunities will disappear.

Your SRC and our fellow student organizations across the province are in the process of launching campaigns to make both the government and the public aware of the damaging outcome of this Ministry initiative. We will keep you posted about the progress of that effort – and may call upon you, at some point, to add your voices to the campaign by means of petition-signing, letter-writing to provincial politicians and/or rallies.

We hope that you appreciate the services and facilities that we have provided to you – and hope to be able to continue to provide to you – as we strive, always, to improve your lives as our fellow students.