ON February 25, the 2016 Ontario budget was released; one of its priorities focused on satiating the insistent requests from student groups -— free tuition for students from low-income backgrounds. But when the government offers you a free lunch, it pays to be skeptical.
While this budget takes steps toward more equitable financing for post-secondary education in Ontario, our province still has a long way to go before university education is equally accessible.
Not free for everyone
The budget provides most college and university students whose family income is less than $50,000 a year with enough grant funding to cover their entire tuition. The government stipulates that no student will receive less funding under the new plan than they would have received from the pre-existing 30% Off Tuition Grant.
This commitment certainly signals progress; however, it is not free, and it does not provide enough funding to cover degrees with higher-than-average costs.
The government estimates average undergraduate university tuition costs $6,160, while Statistics Canada averages it at around $7,868. As a result, there is a $1,700 shortfall.
This is because the government calculated average cost of tuition based solely on arts and science degrees, which doesn’t fully account for more expensive degrees, such as those in commerce, engineering, or computer science. This appears to be poor planning on the part of the government, as careers that stem from some of the more technical degrees flow into some of the least saturated job sectors in Ontario.
The plan will come at “roughly no cost” to the government, meaning that the funds used to offer finance tuition represent no increase to public funding invested in higher education but merely a redistribution of existing resources.
The Ontario Student Grant (OSG) will consolidate all other grant programs currently operating under Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP), while tuition and education tax credits will be discontinued and reallocated to pay for the OSG. This is predicated on the assumption that “[g]rants are more effective than tax credits at targeting financial support to students with the greatest needs and providing support upfront,” which seems to reign true.
A deeper look into the student assistance system, however, reveals troubling possibilities for some students that are not addressed within the new structure. Co-op students and students who work are likely going to pay tax on income that was not previously taxable. While this will not restrict all students that fall into this category, it is worth noting that some students with higher incomes seek them out because they do not qualify for other forms of government support.
Financial need will continue to be largely based on family income under the new system. While we can be fairly confident that students coming from low-income families are in need of assistance, it is less clear that all students from high income families do not need assistance.
To the government’s credit, some attempt has been made in the budget to rectify this problem. Parental and spousal income will be less of a determining factor when assessing students’ financial need than it has in the past. Grants will also be available to mature students as eligibility will no longer be tied to the number of years a student has been out of high school.
For some students who, despite these provisions, rely on income other than government grants and loans to fund their education, this budget is not expected to deliver much relief. Students should view this as an omission on the part of the government and should lament the fact that students whose need is not easily quantifiable are likely to be left behind.
Student debt goes unaddressed
There is no mention in the budget of debt forgiveness, something that student groups such as the Canadian Federation of Students and the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance have been calling for for a long time. Student debt in Canada is high; grads are routinely saddled with more than $20,000 to pay back as they enter the workforce. There is a six-month grace period after graduation during which students do not have to make payments, a provision that will be carried over in this budget.
It is worth noting that, while the government must start somewhere to increase the accessibility of post-secondary education, this plan creates a sizeable disparity in terms of incurred debt between low-income students entering post-secondary education in 2017 and those graduating in the same year. The class starting university in 2017 will be better supported than it otherwise would have been, but nothing has been done to address the mass of university graduates who are currently under-employed and struggling to pay off debt.
The proposed reforms of student assistance will come into effect at the same time that the government’s existing Tuition Fee Framework expires — the current system restricts institutions from increasing domestic undergraduate tuition fees by more than three per cent per year. There is no commitment in the budget to renew this cap, nor has the government committed to extending the cap beyond 2017.
Last week, Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities Reza Moridi stated that the OSG would be tied to inflation and tuition increases. The fact that this is not written in the budget, however, is deeply concerning. If there is no policy or mechanism to adjust the grant in keeping with changing tuition, then the grants will become less effective each successive year.
These tuition fee caps matter to U of T students. In the 2016–2017 fee schedule released February 11, domestic tuition fees are set to rise by the maximum amount yet again. If the government is to commit to the goals they have outlined in this budget, they must not congratulate themselves too quickly. The effectiveness of their plan is contingent upon many other policies, chiefly tuition regulation.
The Ontario government’s overhaul of the existing student assistance programs, while not free, makes significant improvements to equitable access to university education in this province — changes that in many ways are well worth their price tag. The priorities now become ensuring that changes like these reach the students who need assistance most and maintaing an effective system in the face of a changing funding landscape.