Ontario’s new student education costs and you

Jamie Mere, Graphics Editor

In Jan. 2019, the Ford government announced changes that would be made to the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) and unveiled “the Student Choice Initiative” — a policy designed to provide students with the ability to opt out of fees that were once deemed essential ,such as student unions and clubs.

The adjustments that have been made to post-secondary education costs include a ten per cent cut to university and college tuition, along with added interest to the six-month grace period that exists for students who need the time to pay back their OSAP loans.

The degree to which these new policies have been affecting students across Ontario and impacting the services provincial universities provide has varied and continues to remain uncertain.

At Wilfrid Laurier University, the Students’ Union has been adapting to these changes through implemented strategies designed to be cost-effective and beneficial for the student body.

Shawn Cruz, vice president of student affairs, recognizes the significant impact the cuts to OSAP funding will have on a large portion of students who were expecting to receive more money in grants for the upcoming school year.

“The changes to the program actually seem to outweigh the financial value of the ten per cent tuition cut. It’s certainly been concerning for students who initially thought they were going to be saving money, but now have difficulty affording their university education,” Cruz said.

Students have been airing their frustrations about their OSAP grant and loan estimations on social media, with some claiming to expect up to $8,000 less than they originally planned to receive.

“There’s also been a shift in the grant to loan ratio of OSAP, so students who may have been receiving, for example, 70 per cent grants to 30 per cent loans, may see that shifted [to] where they’re receiving much more loans than grants, which is obviously a concern when coupled with the interest on the grace period. Paying back that loan is very difficult,” Cruz said.

Tighter restrictions have also been added to the eligibility of students who use OSAP, and the requirements that classify an independent student and the amount of funding they are given based on those specifications.

The changes to the program actually seem to outweigh the financial value of the ten per cent tuition cut. It’s certainly been concerning for students who initially thought they were going to be saving money, but now have difficulty affording their university education.

— Shawn Cruz, vice president of student affairs at Wilfrid Laurier University

“To be an independent student, previously [the requirement] had been four years out of high school; so, once you’re four years out of high school, then your parents income would no longer be a factor into your OSAP application. Now that has been changed to six years, so students have to wait even longer to be considered independent from their parents, and there are people now who are three years out of high school, but are independent, and that obviously makes things much more difficult to get an actual OSAP loan,” Cruz said.

“Additionally, there’s been a change where students who are from a low-income household, which is defined as a combined household income of 50,000 dollars, will no longer receive free tuition. So, previously, those students were eligible for purely grants instead of grants and loans and that has now changed where everyone will have loans to some degree in their OSAP.”

The Students’ Union has been addressing student concerns about OSAP funding by sharing an official statement on their social media channels, as well as a survey that students could fill out to voice the ways that these changes have impacted their financial circumstances and their plans for the upcoming school year.

“The overriding sense that I’ve been seeing is that students are having a much more difficult time affording education, particularly for this upcoming year. I think there’s this perception that some students may have been relying solely on OSAP, and that they don’t have work opportunities or things like that, but from what I’ve been seeing that’s clearly not the case,” Cruz said.

“These are students who are working hard to save up for university and are just using OSAP to cover that gap. And now that the shift in the amount that they’re getting has changed and the amount of loans versus grants that they’re getting has changed, people are seriously reconsidering whether or not they can continue their education, which is unfortunate.”

Zemar Hakim, president & CEO of the Students’ Union, entered the year with knowledge that the Student Choice Initiative was going to directly affect the organization’s operating strategy — at least to some degree.

“The Student Choice Initiative is a directive that requires all universities and colleges to classify their fees as essential and nonessential based on the guidelines from the government. And the fees that they have deemed essential, which are athletics and recreation, career services, student buildings, health and counselling, academic support, student ID cards, student achievement and records, financial aid offices, campus safety programs,” Hakim said.

“And the impact on us, has been to classify our fees that the government would have deemed non-essential into three categories, so we have our social programming fee, concerts and events, we have our student advocacy fee which is for Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance (OUSA), and our campus clubs fee.”

Minister Merrilee Fullerton originally stated that the Student Choice Initiative could save students up to $1,000 — an estimate that drastically varies from school to school. Student groups around the province are protesting the initiative, with two student unions,the Canadian Federation of Students and the York Federation of Students,taking the government to court over the decision.

Despite the setbacks that the Student Choice Initiative presents for many colleges and universities, the Students’ Union is cautiously positive.

“We’re optimistic, relatively, about our numbers with the fees. Most of our services, thankfully, have been deemed essential by the government,” Hakim said.

The groups that will likely experience the largest impact from the opt-out fees are student advocacy and campus publications.

“Advocacy by its nature tends to be more long term and tangible; it’s also been deemed non-essential by the government, so that’s definitely taken a hit. And also student publications: they provide a useful voice on campus because they are necessary to tell a campus story and to provide oversight for things like the Students’ Union or the administration, so the fact that this is taking place is unfortunate for student publications across the province,” Cruz said.

We’re optimistic, relatively, about our numbers with the fees. Most of our services, thankfully, have been deemed essential by the government.

— Zemar Hakim, president and CEO of the Wilfrid Laurier University Students’ Union

With these expectations in mind, the Students’ Union has one specific challenge ahead of them.

“On behalf of the organization, definitely promoting and communicating to the undergraduate body what we do, which we’re working on right now with our hashtag ‘SU does that’ campaign. I definitely think [the key is] going to be the promotion and identification: it’s [about] letting students know that this is a service you’ve been using for such a long time — something like Wilf’s, for example, this is attached [to] and owned by the Students’ Union,” Hakim said.

In adapting with the changes that have been made, efforts have been put into place for the organization to be as transparent as possible when keeping students informed.

“And the promotion of our services also extends, to some extent, to advocacy, where we’ve tried to be more transparent this year about our [advocacy] efforts through our newsletter and being more active on social media. We want students to be aware that we do hear them and that we do hear their concerns and we’re trying our best to bring those concerns to the government,” Cruz said.

And when approaching the year ahead, president Hakim is taking these obstacles in stride.

“I’m taking it as a learning opportunity. I think it’s cool that the first job I have right out of university is — this is very real world experience — where the SU in general is affected by the government, the fact that I’m exposed to this so early, as are all the student executives, is a good learning opportunity for us,” Hakim said.

The Students’ Union encourages Laurier students to use their voices to push for the changes they wish to see, to both university administration, as well as government representatives.

“I think if you have any feedback on the changes to OSAP and the Student Choice Initiative in general, definitely come forward to us — but also talk to your local MP,” Hakim said.

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