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Local reaction to OSAP changes, tuition fee reductions

After the announcement of a 10 per cent reduction in tuition fees and changes to OSAP grant eligibility, local post-secondary institutes, student associations and politicians have weighed in with opinions (photo courtesy of UOIT)

By Dave Flaherty/The Oshawa Express

Local schools, students unions, and politicians have all weighed in on changes to tuition fees and OSAP made by the Ford government last week.

The province announced it would be slashing tuition fees for post-secondary students by 10 per cent for the 2019-2020 school year. Fees will then freeze during the following school year.

Additionally, student union or association fees will no longer be mandatory.

Major changes are also coming to the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP).

Beginning next year, Ontario will eliminate grants allowing students from lower-income families to attend post-secondary school for free.

In 2016, the Liberals increased the number of grants available to students.

However, Training, Colleges and Universities Minister Merrilee Fullerton said the system had become unsustainable.

A recent report from the province’s auditor general stated the costs of the grant program could grow to $2 billion a year by 2020-2021.

Therefore, the government will lower the threshold for grants and instead provide more loans, akin to the previous system before the Liberal changes.

“The previous government believed in handing out OSAP money to some of Ontario’s highest income earners with virtually no meaningful criteria for success,” said Fullerton in a media statement. “It is no surprise that student enrolment has remained flat while tuition rates skyrocketed. Instead of using OSAP to indirectly subsidize future rounds of tuition hikes, we will focus our resources on the families in greatest need while challenging our partners in the post-secondary sector to deliver better value for the high tuitions they already charge.”

Both UOIT and Durham College reacted to the PC plans through released statements.

Durham College president Don Lovisa said there are “many questions still to be answered about the impending changes.”

Despite this, Lovisa said the college remains committed to continue to provide the best education to its students.

“We will have to wait for further details from the Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities before the impact to students, our great campus community and operations can be determined,” Lovisa stated.

UOIT officials called the reduction in tuition fees a “positive step in improving education accessibility for Ontario’s university students while balancing the provincial government’s fiscal challenges.”

However, university president Dr. Steven Murphy did concede the reduction would create new challenges, but the school would address them through innovative methods.

Jessica Nguyen, president of UOIT’s Student Union, admitted the announcements were “definitely a surprise.”

While Nguyen says a reduction in tuition fees sounds great, she believes when looking at the issue more in-depth, it may mean budget cuts at the university.

She worries that students “might not get the greatest quality of education” moving forward.

Student union fees being optional will “definitely change the atmosphere,” for the union, she adds.

“It definitely affects how we operate as an organization.”

The organization, which plans many events across UOIT’s campus, might have to scale down its programs, Nguyen explains.

“We don’t want students just to go to class and then go home,” she notes, adding a decrease in revenue “doesn’t allow us to be the organization we can for students.”

On the changes to OSAP, Nguyen says the majority of university students take on some form of financial assistance.

With many of the grants now becoming loans that have to be paid back, she calls the situation “kind of scary” for some students.

The province is also eliminating a six-month grace period students currently have before beginning to pay off their OSAP loan.

To Nguyen, this move is the one that creates anxiety and stress for a lot of students.

“That has a huge impact. With the six-month grace period, it allows them to have a job [before beginning to repay]. It puts huge stress on them.”

The UOIT student president said she feels post-secondary schools are “kind of being targeted” by the Ford government.

“It’s unfortunate,” she says.

The Trent Durham Student Association (TDSA) released a statement in reaction to the changes.

“The Trent Durham Student Association recognize[s] that a decrease in the cost of tuition is beneficial to students, but are concerned that the proposed framework will negatively impact affordability for those who need it the most and presents financial challenges for universities, affecting the quality of education in Ontario,” the statement reads.

Association officials also declared the government’s actions on OSAP will “impact students who need it the most” and will not address the financial burden placed on many students.

Concerns were also raised about students being allowed to opt-out of student association fees, as the TDSA believes it could affect services such as prescription drug coverage, safety services, student employment, and dental coverage.

“Student unions are essential to the wellness of students through providing experiential learning opportunities, administering services that protect the health and safety of students, and providing a place for their voices to be heard and valued,” said Elizabeth Lindsay, vice-president of university affairs for the TDSA.

Oshawa MPP Jennifer French was troubled with the news.

“It’s unfortunate because this change kind of goes after our low-income and middle-income students because it cuts grants,” French said. “To make it harder for lower and middle-income students is the wrong thing for this government to do.”

As for the tuition fee reduction, French says it takes money out of our colleges and universities.

Overall, French says the OSAP changes negate any possible shift from cutting tuition.

“What decides whether or not somebody is able to become a student in the first place is if they are eligible for a grant or loan,” she stated. “The shiny headline is about reducing tuition, what we don’t see is the fine print about reducing access and student potential.”

However, Durham MPP Lindsey Park said her party was elected “to put money back in the pockets of Durham students.”

“This announcement is doing just that. This is about our talented and capable young people being able to access an affordable post-secondary education here in Durham,” Park said.