On Thursday January 17, the Government of Ontario announced policy changes on post-secondary education. Funding of the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) will change commencing September 2019. The government announced a ten percent reduction in tuition fees. However, the changes made to OSAP are more detrimental than a reduction in fees, of which universities will have to absorb the loss of revenue. These will impact the functioning of universities with less institutional funding. Ontario has focused its funding on low-income families to ensure that those in financial need receive funding; however, this means that many Ontarians that have previously been funded and receiving grants will no longer be eligible. OSAP is also changing the grant-to-load ratio to a minimum of fifty percent, meaning that students will not be able to receive more grants than they do loans.

Students and attendees congregate at Queen’s Park during the Students March in Toronto, Ontario on January 25, 2019. Photo by Lubna Sadek.

Loans have also changed, in which the six-month grace period that followed the completion of studies has been removed, and interest rates will be applicable immediately after graduating. In addition to these changes, the government introduced the Student Choice Initiative in which ancillary and levy fees will become optional, and students will have the ability to decide which services to pay for.

Merrilee Fullerton, Minister of Training, Universities and Colleges, announced that the government of Ontario is restoring OSAP by making these changes. However, it is important to consider that these strict restrictions will be applicable to all students, and impact student life in catastrophic ways. Less people will be able to afford OSAP with the decrease in eligibility based on family net income, and loans will become more prevalent, which in turn results in education becoming less accessible, contrary to what the Ontario government is stating.

Along with such changes came resistance from post-secondary students across Ontario. Protests against changes made to OSAP took place throughout the province, with the largest one in the area taking place in the province’s capital, Toronto. On Friday January 25, thousands of students and community members marched in a peaceful protest from Yonge-Dundas Square to Queen’s Park, demanding for better changes to the program, and to express their rejection of the most recent changes to the funding program, fighting for the right to afford education.

Two Trent University students that attended the march shared their thoughts with Arthur, and with all students alike on why the protest was of such importance, what it means for post-secondary education in Ontario, and what education means to them:

“Post-secondary education changed my life. When making this statement, I’m not simply referring to the plethora of future job opportunities a degree will afford me. I know it may sound corny, but I’m referring to the intellectual, spiritual, and emotional evolution it invoked in me. It taught me about myself…my capabilities, my short-comings, my potential. It taught me how to view the world through a kaleidoscope and how absolutely vital each and every colourful perspective is. Without having had adequate access to funding, I would have never even dreamed of attending university. I went to the protest because EVERYONE should be afforded the same opportunity. I don’t necessarily believe a program which rewards individuals for pursuing education with debt and interest, such as OSAP, is the best solution. However, the changes made to the program by the Ford government, felt like a step away from the prospect of equal/equitable access to post-secondary education. I believe in the power and beauty of education far too much, to have not attended this protest.” – Jelena Avramovic

Jelena Avramovic carries a sign reading “Doug Ford, the neoliberal Robin Hood… steal from the poor + give to the rich” at the Students March in Toronto, Ontario on January 25, 2019. Photo by Lubna Sadek.

“This event was important for students to attend. I went so I could support those who will be directly or indirectly impacted by the further restrictions placed onto OSAP funding. People always say “‘I’m just one person, what can I do?” So I made my voice heard and found a community with thousands of other people who felt the same way. By coming together we were very noticeable and the media was there to listen. This was for our future generations and we need to protect their educations access, quality and affordability.” – Sarah Mitchell

These changes will cause more financial strain on students, and inaccessibility to education. Whilst being able to opt out of additional tuition costs and save some accumulated funds, the Student Choice Initiative will change the university student’s experience completely. Ancillary fees and levy fees are additional to tuition fees that are collected from students by the university, and dispersed accordingly to student and campus groups to fund services that are available to those students. By creating an opt-out method where students have the ability to decide which groups to financially support, the funding of these groups are put at risk, and therefore so do the services they provide. Whilst the Ontario government kept health and safety fees mandatory, all other fees will be optional, putting many services at risk for not functioning since funding will not be present. The services that are now at risk include transit, campus life, support centres such as academic skills and academic advising, equity centres, and the student centres, and campus newspapers (i.e. this very publication). This also includes the funding of campus jobs that provide working opportunities for students, and full-time employees that run these organizations.

The student experience does not strictly exist in the classroom or lecture hall, but largely in the academic programming and services provided by the university that enhances the educational experience. Communities which provide support, volunteer and working opportunities are provided by campus groups, while contributing to the student identity. Funding is essential in completing the essence of post-secondary education.

Students across Ontario are appalled at the decisions of the government, with peaceful protests to show their resistance and demand for change, and a petition to take action against threats to education. These petitions can be found and signed online, and students are hoping to gain enough support and collective agreement against such changes from occurring later this year. If the Ontario government wishes to ‘restore’ program and create a sustainable financial plan, slashing education access should not be an option whatsoever.

An attendee carries a sign reading “Action now! Build towards a student strike!” at the Students March in Toronto, Ontario on January 25, 2019. Photo by Lubna Sadek.