Doug Ford in Sudbury, 2018. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Premier of Ontario
Legislative Building
Queen’s Park
Toronto ON M7A 1A1

Dear Premier Ford and Minister Fullerton:

We are writing today on behalf of the 1,300,000+ post-secondary 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 around 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 10 per cent 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.

Respectfully,