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NDP commitment to student issues hindered by possible lack of funding

Re: “In conversation with Jessica Bell, NDP candidate for University—Rosedale”

NDP commitment to student issues hindered by possible lack of funding

The New Democratic Party (NDP) candidate for UTSG’s riding, Jessica Bell, stresses her party’s commitment to issues such as accessible transit, housing, mental health services, and education, all of which make her a relatable and viable candidate.

Bell acknowledges the TTC’s high fares and the effects of poor service quality. She mentions the NDP’s plans to invest in the TTC and introduce discounted passes for students and low-income riders. While this plan is exciting, Bell does not discuss how much money the NDP plans to invest in the TTC and how this investment would accommodate the TTC’s estimated 850,000 riders.  

Bell responds to the demand for mental health services by saying that these stresses are often related to unaffordable housing and mental health support. She highlights the NDP’s plan to make housing more affordable and introduce 30,000 new supportive housing units. She also adds that the NDP is considering funding 2,600 more mental health workers for shorter wait times. These plans would admittedly help many postsecondary students. However, an NDP government might not have enough funds to put all of these plans into action after making up for the current provincial government’s deficit spending.

On education, Bell explains that the NDP is considering converting any new student loan to a grant, and eliminating government debt on all current loans. Funding would come from raising corporate taxes and personal taxes for higher income brackets, an act that would likely draw protest from voters. Bell also mentions that the NDP plans to create 27,000 co-op positions to ensure paid work experience for postsecondary students, but doesn’t explain how the NDP plans to create them.

Though all of Bell’s platforms address student concerns, there remains doubt regarding the NDP’s ability to finance all of its proposed plans, as the next provincial government will have to work hard to balance the books upset by the current Liberal government.

Zeahaa Rehman is a fourth-year student studying Linguistics and Professional Writing and Communication at UTM.

The fall of the Liberal centre puts students’ issues at a crossroads

Students must review the big issues that affect them, be informed, and vote on June 7, no matter the party

The fall of the Liberal centre puts students’ issues at a crossroads

After four controversial years of Liberal reign, a new government will emerge from the provincial election on June 7. Ontario is poised for big change — and not just because change is inherent to elections.

Kathleen Wynne, the well-qualified, perpetually unliked Liberal premier, has already conceded the election — telling voters to not worry about her being premier and to vote in as many Liberal candidates as possible, instead.  In a pessimistic call for strategic voting, the Toronto Star’s editorial board has urged Ontarians to vote for Andrea Horwath’s New Democratic Party (NDP) — to stop Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives (PC) from occupying the top post in Queen’s Park. Meanwhile, the Green Party remains a fringe option but reminds us of the necessity of a sustainable future.

The fall of the Liberal centre means that the future of students’ issues are at a crossroads between arguably the two most ideologically divergent parties. The party that wins will control an economy that will very seriously affect you over the next four years. Tuition, youth unemployment, housing, and transit are the big issues that should be on your mind as students, graduates, and future workers.

As of 2016, millennials outnumber baby boomers by 3.5 million in Canada, so student turnout at the polls could cause significant change for the future of Ontario. Do your part — review the big issues, as we describe them, and be informed when you take to the ballot box on June 7. If you understand what is at stake, you will know that you have no other option than to vote — whatever the party.

Tuition

Arguably the most concerning issue to students’ pockets is the rising cost of tuition and debt that accumulates from postsecondary education. In March, the Business Board of the university’s Governing Council approved widespread tuition fee increases, with three per cent raises for domestic Arts & Science, Architecture, Music, and Kinesiology & Physical Education faculties, and five per cent for the Engineering faculty.

A 2015 analysis found that Ontario has one of the least affordable tuition rates in the country for median-income families. This past academic year, Canadian full-time undergraduate programs cost students an average of $6,571, which increased by 3.1 per cent from the previous year. For students in Ontario studying business or the sciences, however, tuition fees exceeded this average, with fees for business programs topping out across Canada.

Provincial and federal policies have been implemented to offset the cost of postsecondary education, and to encourage students from lower-income families to pursue further education. As a result, student enrolment in postsecondary education has steadily increased since 2001, especially of students with lower parental incomes.

Federal and provincial financial assistance programs, like the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP), mainly use family income to assess which students are eligible for grants. However, strict cutoffs for OSAP eligibility mean that many students cannot afford postsecondary education. In that case, students often take out high-interest loans and accumulate student debt. In 2017, the Ontario Student Grant (OSG) was formed to help students in such tricky situations by easing restrictions to financial assistance. However, the OSG was designed to cover the ‘average’ tuition costs of a student’s program, despite the fact that many programs cost significantly more. The government did not invest new funds into this initiative.

The rising cost of tuition is a central election issue. The NDP mapped out a 10-year plan to convert all student loans to grants and forgive interest on all provincial student loans. The Liberals will put new funds into the OSAP program, particularly in the form of grants, as opposed to simply shifting funds around. The Green Party aims to eventually guarantee fully public tuition for all. The PCs have not yet discussed their take on tuition costs.

Youth unemployment

Ontario is one of the worst provinces in Canada for young job-seekers. Many recent university graduates have difficulty securing work in their field of study following graduation. A 2014 Canadian Teachers’ Federation report, referenced by CBC News, states that more than 40 per cent of youth in Canada are unemployed, working fewer hours than they desire, or have given up on the job hunt entirely. Since previous work experience is greatly preferred by employers, many new graduates have difficulty getting their foot in the door. Challenges in finding work are even more pronounced for already marginalized young people, such as those who are racialized, LGBTQ+, disabled, or low-income.

Those who do find work are met with a changing employment landscape. Increasingly, people are being hired on short-term contracts or as temporary workers, leaving them with no job security and a great deal of stress. Additionally, these jobs often have irregular hours, low pay, and no benefits. ‘Side hustles’ are becoming increasingly common for millennials in order to make ends meet. These bleak prospects are of particular concern for new graduates, since many face large debts upon completing their studies. Students need more assurance that the time, energy, and funds invested into their degrees will not be for naught.

In their platforms, all of the parties express interest in creating new jobs in Ontario. The Liberal Party highlights its record of creating nearly one million new jobs since the recession, and plans to continue this success by attracting industry, investment, and innovation to the province. The PCs plan to create jobs by lowering business taxes, stabilizing hydro bills, and cutting red tape. The Green Party is interested in creating more green jobs. The NDP plans to create more opportunities for postsecondary students to gain real-world work experience while they complete their degrees. The NDP also plans to allow more workers to unionize to improve the current problem of precarious work.

Housing

The Varsity’s 2018 Winter Magazine highlighted a serious yet largely invisible issue: student homelessness. As the Parkdale rent strike demonstrated last year, affordable housing constitutes a crisis in Toronto. Even though a 2017 U of T report indicated that U of T needs 2,300 beds by 2020 to meet housing demands, the City of Toronto has largely opposed housing expansion projects — such as the proposed Spadina-Sussex building near campus.

A heated housing market and gentrification have culminated in skyrocketing rent and a lack of affordable housing, affecting vulnerable communities — including students — the hardest. Students are often left to pay more to access housing, with compounding debt on top of their tuition. In the GTA, 23 per cent of residents pay half their income on rent. A lack of supply and intense demand for housing has led to unreasonable rental rates. However, students must concern themselves not only as current tenants, but also as near-future homebuyers who will be affected by the next government for up to four years. The rate of Canadian renters is currently higher than the rate of homebuyers, meaning that home ownership is an obstacle for young graduates and workers.

Ontario is in desperate need for an increased supply in affordable housing. All parties agree that there must be change, and that people should be able to access the housing market without taking on unreasonable risks or burdens. The Liberals’ Ontario’s Fair Housing Plan (FHP) of April 2017 was intended to improve rental affordability for all units in the province. They hope to continue to extend the FHP, increase the supply of housing, and protect renters and real estate consumers, with a $1 billion investment in affordable housing. Following sharp criticism, Doug Ford backstepped from his housing development proposal in the protected Greenbelt area, and has instead pledged to increase housing supply and cut red tape. The NDP views housing as a human right and has promised 65,000 affordable homes over 10 years. The Green Party announced that its housing plan will prioritize seniors, youth, and families.

Transit

Transit is a hot-button topic for U of T students in the upcoming Ontario election. The voter participation seen in the University of Toronto Students’ Union’s (UTSU) failed U-Pass referendum illustrates the crucial role that affordable transit plays for students.  In March, a total of 12,428 students turned out, with 35.4 per cent in favour and 65.6 per cent in opposition of the U-Pass. If approved, U-Pass would have provided undergraduate St. George students with a discounted TTC metropass, but with little option to opt-out.

Transit is not solely an issue for St. George students. Students at UTM and UTSC rely on GO Transit and the TTC to attend classes and also get around the GTA.

In the upcoming Ontario election, it is in the best interest of students who use transit to support candidates who prioritize low-cost and reliable transit. Premier Kathleen Wynne’s campaign promise to reduce GO Transit fares for PRESTO users is an example of such a policy. The Liberals also pledge to invest $79 billion for different public transit projects. The PC Party supports underground transit and has committed an additional $5 billion for transit infrastructure, including subways and relief lines in Toronto. Meanwhile, the NDP and Green Party promise to fund 50 per cent of the TTC’s operating costs.

U of T residents in the University—Rosedale electoral district can vote at Hart House from 9:00 am to 9:00 pm on June 7.

The Varsity’s editorial board is elected by the masthead at the beginning of each semester. For more information about the editorial policy, email [email protected]

In conversation with Jessica Bell, NDP candidate for University—Rosedale

MPP candidate discusses transit, mental health, student loans

In conversation with Jessica Bell, NDP candidate for University—Rosedale

Ahead of the Ontario provincial elections on June 7, The Varsity sat down with the MPP candidates for UTSG’s riding, University—Rosedale. The candidate for the New Democratic Party (NDP) is Jessica Bell, the founding executive director for the transit advocacy group TTCriders. She spoke with fellow NDP candidates for provincial parliament at U of T last March about women in politics. In her interview with The Varsity, Bell discusses transit, mental health, and her party’s plan to convert provincial loans into grants.

Bell focuses on improving mental health facilities, assisting students who are unable to pay for their own education or loans, and improving TTC funding while also providing fare relief for students and low income individuals. Bell also goes into detail about the NDP’s plan for funding these programs by incorporating a progressive tax system.

The Varsity: What is the NDP’s plan to alleviate transit costs for students?

Jessica Bell: When I think about transit, there’s two issues that come to mind. One is the cost, the high cost of fares that have been going up faster than inflation for years; and the second piece is about service quality, because when service quality is poor, which it has been, students spend way more time commuting and way less time doing what they want to do with their life. Our plan is to properly invest in the TTC and all local transit systems across Ontario, so the TTC can improve service in all routes across the city and [have] the option to reduce fares. As the Executive Director of TTCriders, a transit advocacy organization campaigning for better service and lower fares, we found the TTC wasn’t able to provide fare relief properly because they didn’t have the funding to do it… It’s the most efficient transit system in North America [but] when we have approached them and said, ‘Hey, what about a discount pass for low income riders, or two hour fare transfers so we can get on and off without paying twice, or further discounts for students,’ their response has been ‘we don’t have the money.’ By investing in the TTC, the NDP is giving the TTC money to provide this kind of relief.  

TV: Mental health services are in very high demand, especially among students. What type of mental health services do you plan on providing, how can they help students specifically, and how much of your provincial budget do you plan on spending on them?  

JB: I remember going through university, and stress and anxiety is a daily part of being in university, especially around exam time. And then there’s that added stress of, in my case, putting myself through university, and there are a lot of people I know who need to have a part-time job as well as going to school, and then it’s just compounding. So we’ve got a few pieces to it. One, we find that a lot of the stresses that students face are often related to affordability… We’re looking at making housing more affordable in particular, and student debt much lower, which would provide some kind of ease for students, especially if they are having to work and go to school full-time. We are looking at making a Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions because, as we’ve currently seen… mental health [care] is currently administered by up to 30 agencies and departments across Ontario. We’d want to amalgamate that.

We’re [also] looking at funding 2,600 more mental health workers, so that if someone is facing a mental health crisis or needs to seek support, there’d be a much shorter wait time… We’d expect up to 400 of them to be in high schools.

In addition to [reducing wait times], we’re looking at creating 30,000 new supportive housing units, so if people are struggling, there’s a place for them to go… We also have an opioid crisis in Ontario, and we want to declare it a public health emergency and take a harm reduction approach to tackling that, which would include safe injection sites.

TV: The NDP platform states that it will “take on student debt by converting loans to grants and creating thousands of student jobs.” Can you expand on this?

JB: Our plan to help students is a signature piece in our platform. We are looking at any new student loan — any new student OSAP provincial loan — [which] will be converted from a debt to a grant that doesn’t need to be paid back. We’re also looking at eliminating the [provincial] interest [on] all current student loans… I have a friend at the campaign office, she has $50,000 in student debt and she pays five per cent interest on that, which is ridiculous. It’s the government making money off of students, and you’re already pushed pretty tight when it comes to your finances… By helping make school so much cheaper, it pushes the idea that education is a human right… We’re [also] looking at creating 27,000 co-op positions, so students who are going through university or college can access a paid internship co-op position, so they can get that critical work experience and get their foot through the door in the career that’s important to them.

TV: You mentioned that the NDP plans to convert provincial loans into grants. Where will the funding for this come from?

JB: So we have a fully costed plan — it’s 98 pages. We are looking at that funding coming from general revenue, [which] is available because we’re looking at asking corporations and high income people to pay a little bit more. We’re looking at raising the corporate tax rate from 11.5 per cent to 13 per cent. We’re looking at increasing the personal tax rate for individuals earning $220,000 by one point, and by three points for those earning $300,000. So by creating a more fair and progressive tax system, we can provide these critical services that we need, such as making education more accessible and investing in mental health.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.