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Durham MPP hears student concerns

By Dave Flaherty/The Oshawa Express

Despite the implementation of programs such as free tuition for low income families and free prescriptions for those under 25 years old, Ontario’s university and college students are still facing a number of struggles.

Durham MPP Granville Anderson recently held a roundtable with students from Durham College and UOIT to discuss a number of topics.

Peter Garrett, who attended Durham from 2015 to 2017, says while free tuition is a positive step for eligible students, funding for postsecondary education in Ontario needs to better reflect the province’s current employment environment.

“The problem is job opportunities after school aren’t what they used to be, it’s a lot of contract work, a lot of part-time work,” Garrett says. “I know people who graduated from the same program as me and they ended up working at Walmart or Tim Horton’s.”

While he believes the province’s minimum wage to $15 will help this situation, Garrett said that many students are not finding jobs that allow them to pay off their debt, and in some cases, even afford everyday costs living in Durham Region.

Earlier this year, the Liberal government implemented changes to the provincial student assistance program, offering free tuition to students whose families earn $50,000 or less a year. Graduates are now also only required to start paying back loans once they are earning $35,000 a year, up from the previous figure of $25,000.

Denise Ranger, a mature student enrolled in paralegal studies at Durham, said even with these new developments, the OSAP system needs to be given a long, hard look.

“The OSAP concept is that they are going out of school, and they are going to get a job where they work for years and there will be job security and their wages are going to go up like it used to in the ‘good old days’. Those days are gone,” Ranger says. “Now there is no stability, there is no guarantee and there are no sustained wage increases.”

Anderson noted while tuition levels in Ontario are some of the highest in the province, through numerous programs offered to students, the average debt load after graduation is the third lowest in the country.

Talib Ali, president of the university’s newly-formed Student Union, says many UOIT students cannot or are not allowed to have jobs during the school year to support themselves, and even if they can work, it isn’t always enough.

“If you work 20 hours a week, which is hard for a lot of students, that’s 80 hours a month. That’s $1,200, put tax on that, you are getting around $1,000, $950,” Ali says. “The average rent around the university is $500 – plus your phone bill and you may have to buy textbooks. You are left with zero dollars a month.”

Expanding on the topic of textbooks, Ali says it is something the government should look at.

“We want to push the faculty away from publishers. Let’s take calculus math — there haven’t been any changes to calculus in like 70 to 100 years, but publishers bring in a new edition every year. I know in some schools, not in Ontario, some [professors] basically endorse the publishers and they get a cut of that.”

According to Ali, some authors are willing to share their work for free and he feels the province should seek them out.

“I know it’s a big change, and it’s not going to happen right away, but now is the time.”

Ali estimated he’s spent $3,000 to $4,000 on textbooks during his tenure at UOIT.

“Students are forced to buy international versions or to download them illegally because they don’t have enough money. The average price of textbooks is $250 to $500 each.”

Many of these textbooks are mandatory, Ranger says, noting she has had classes where the exams are open textbook.

“We absolutely have to use some of these books and they are expensive and we can’t access them online. If you could, you still can’t take them and annotate them in the way you could with an actual textbook.”

Anderson said the province has invested more in online textbooks and educational resources, however, the students explained that the catalogue of online textbooks is quite small.

“There are not a lot of textbooks on there,” Ali says.

Approximately 74 per cent of Durham College students and 52 per cent of UOIT students have received free tuition through OSAP and almost 100 per cent of funding through Ontario Student Grants.

“That is pretty high, you are making use of it,” Anderson says.

However, he acknowledged there is still work to remove barriers to postsecondary education to all residents of Ontario.

“It’s not perfect, and we can make adjustments,” he told the students, adding he would take their concerns and “address them”.