The Ontario government has eliminated funding for the Ontario Work-Study Program as part of an effort to shave a billion dollars off the provincial deficit by next year.
The program formerly funneled about $9 million annually to Ontario universities to offer OSAP recipients part-time employment. It was cut as part of the April 2012 Ontario Budget — a budget that critics claim eliminates a total of $100 million in existing scholarships and assistance programs. According to statements issued by Ontario finance minister Dwight Duncan, the cuts are meant to “streamline student financial assistance,” following the introduction of a 30 per cent tuition grant earlier this year.
The work-study program was financed by provincial funds combined with university contributions. In a statement, vice-provost Jill Matus said that the university would continue to fund the program, with 20 per cent of student wages coming from employer contributions and the remaining 80 per cent funded centrally by the university. But the number of hours that students participating in the program can work per week will be cut because of the reduced level of funding.
Matus also wrote that the university would be re-configuring the program for the upcoming school year to include work-study opportunities for students who do not qualify for OSAP.
“Now that U of T is funding the program, we can expand the criteria for eligibility. In particular, students do not have to be OSAP-eligible. We are also extending participation to include students who are part-time (at least 2.0 credits over fall/winter terms), international, or out-of-province,” read the statement.
The province’s decision to cut the program has frustrated students, who say it was an ideal way for students to earn money while enrolled full-time in school, and gain work experience in their field without putting too great a strain on their studies.
“Prior to working on campus, I worked weekends and some weekdays at a not-for profit organization,” said Ben Peel, an undergraduate student at U of T and former participant in the work-study scheme. “It was very demanding on me personally and academically since I never had any time to study or work on papers over the weekend.
“I never ran into that problem in any of my work-study positions. My employers allowed me to organize my schedule around my free time on campus.”
“The program provided an excellent opportunity to develop important skills and work ethic, meet new people, and make life-long friendships,” said Ezaz Uddin. “For many students … the work-study program provided their first professionally-relevant work experience.”
On the expansion of eligibility, Uddin said that while he believes giving more students the option of working on campus is a positive step, “students with substantive financial needs should get priority, not only because of the financial aspect, but also because students who come from poor [or] stressed households are likely to have a hard time securing employment.”
“Affording an education is a real concern affecting all students. The inclusion of part-time, out-of-province, and international students is a positive step towards recognizing that work-study programs are aid sources for all students,” said Abigail Cudjoe, vice-president-external of the University of Toronto Students’ Union in a statement.
Most affected universities have decided to assume responsibility for funding work-study, and some students are pleased with the universities’ decision to keep the program running.
“At a time when many programs and initiatives are being scaled back or cut completely, it’s really great that the vice provost-students is dedicating funding towards the work-study program,” said Peel.
But student groups like the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance and the Canadian Federation of Students say the university’s move is an inadequate solution. Since the university’s budget is supplemented by student tuition fees, they claim that responsibility for funding the work-study program will now fall on students themselves.
“Students are now essentially working to earn back their own money from the university, and that’s not right,” said Sam Andrey, executive director of OUSA.
Another concern with individual universities taking over funding for work-study is that eventually there will not be enough money to keep the program afloat.
“We can expect to see over the years that this program becomes eroded to the point where it just doesn’t exist,” said Sandy Hudson, outgoing chairperson for CFS-Ontario.
Uddin concurs. “The overall number of students who are hired through the work-study program [may] be reduced drastically as a result of smaller departments not being able to contribute 20 per cent of student wages.”