On January 17, Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities (TCU) Merrilee Fullerton stood before a room full of media in the provincial offices east of Queen’s Park to announce that Ontario universities must cut domestic tuition by 10 per cent, provide “opt-out” options for incidental fees, and adhere to broad changes made to the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP).
Despite some clarifications made in an earlier Varsity interview with David Piccini — the Parliamentary Assistant to Fullerton — ambiguity remains about the specifics of the provincial mandate. The university has also not commented heavily on the issue.
Meanwhile, several protests organized by student unions and other groups have occurred across the province, with more to come. In these protests, thousands of students demanded answers about what these changes will mean for them.
Based on further interviews with the government and the university, The Varsity takes a look into what we know and what we don’t know about the cuts so far.
Domestic tuition cut by 10 per cent
Repeatedly described as “historic” by Piccini, the Ford government’s leading announcement is of a 10 per cent cut to domestic tuition for the next academic year, which will also apply to graduate studies, including Master of Business Administration and Juris Doctor programs. The government has also mandated a tuition freeze for the following year.
Universities and colleges will have to absorb any losses in revenue, as the cut is unfunded by the provincial government.
In an interview with The Varsity, U of T Vice-President & Provost Cheryl Regehr said that these cuts will take $65 million off of the university’s base budget, or $88 million from its expected revenue, since the university had planned to continue raising tuition by three per cent.
In the second year, the changes will cost the university $113 million.
Regehr went on to say that the impact will vary depending on individual divisions, as some divisions rely more heavily on domestic tuition income, but also said that there will be university-wide adjustments as well.
“What we hope to do is find solutions that minimally impact students, staff and faculty, and programs,” said Regehr.
Regehr also confirmed that international tuition will not be affected by the cut, adding that the university plans to follow its already-published tuition framework.
Speaking to The Varsity, Piccini declared that such changes were what he and the Ford government were elected to do.
“I’ve been in meetings with… university presidents, administrators since day one. I’ve been out on campuses and have been in various universities. We’ve been here speaking to presidents as well. And they’ve all said, ‘We know a tightening of the belt is coming,’” said Piccini.
However, in the interview with Regehr, the provost said that neither she nor the university had held discussions with the provincial government on the changes to the university’s funding structure, and that, since then, the university has only received directives through the Council of Ontario Universities — with no word from the provincial government or Fullerton’s office.
When this was brought up to Piccini, he said that The Varsity was “cherry-picking” this policy. “Do you think it’s feasible for our government, every time it introduces legislation, to go around the province on every single piece of draft legislation introduced? That’s unrealistic,” he said.
Piccini went on to say that he had received a “standing ovation” at events after bringing up postsecondary affordability, and that the 10 per cent domestic tuition slash was a result of conversations at events, on campuses, and “over a kitchen table.”
“So in summation, all of that has fed into this policy.”
OSAP interest rates, grants, loans
OSAP will also be undergoing dramatic changes, primarily centred around a push to provide more grants to students whose household income falls below a $50,000 threshold. To accommodate this change, the Ontario government will be shifting the program to provide more loans than grants.
Interest will also begin accruing from day one after graduation, where previously, interest did not accrue on provincial loans for a six-month grace period.
For students in second-entry programs or attending out-of-province institutions, the grant-to-loan ratio will now be a minimum 50 per cent loan.
When asked how these changes would help students, Piccini answered that the government needs to be “fiscally responsible” — later claiming that “you could pull up to university in a Ferrari” and still receive grants under the previous OSAP system. He returned with a question of his own, asking why the federal government does not have parity with Ontario in its grant-to-loan ratio.
Emphasizing that “the sustainability of the system” needs to be ensured, Piccini also said that preserving the “integrity of the structure” of OSAP requires balancing “our own immediate interests” with the interests of students like those “in rural Ontario, whose families earn $30,000 median income in [his] riding.”
Regehr, who underscored the university’s high spending on student assistance, said that the university will work to “try and limit the impact of these changes on our students.”
Last year, U of T spent $210 million, or eight per cent of its budget, on student aid — more than any other university in Ontario, according to Regehr.
The Student Choice Initiative: an “opt-out” from incidental fees
The last mandate from the provincial government, dubbed the Student Choice Initiative (SCI), is for Ontario universities to develop an “opt-out” system for incidental fees, which would either be labelled “essential” or “non-essential.”
Already included in the “essential” category are walksafe programs, counselling, athletics, academic support, and health and safety-related fees.
Fullerton also announced on February 1 that transit passes, such as the ones offered at UTM, will also be considered essential.
Piccini expressed his belief that the SCI is in no way analogous to taxes, saying that he could “make that analogy ad nauseam” to all issues.
Piccini said that to compare funds for “the quidditch club or [to] boycott and divest Israel… with taxes is laughable at best and worrisome at worst.”
Piccini also gave the example of subscription fees for media outlets like The Globe and Mail or the National Post as a reason for why campus media should not be considered essential.
He added that the fees being considered non-essential “have nothing to do with taxes and have nothing to do with the essential services that government provides,” going on to say that “we prescribe and force feed down new students’ throats things — and from people whom they didn’t elect, programs that they didn’t vote to support.”
On whether health and dental programs offered by student unions are considered “essential,” Piccini said that these will be ongoing discussions between the universities and the student unions.
The University of Toronto Students’ Union currently administers the health and dental plans for full-time UTSG and UTM students, though there is an existing opt-out option for these fees.
Piccini had also confirmed in a previous interview that universities will have final say on the decisions to be made about which fees are labelled “essential” or “non-essential.”
Regehr, however, says that the university is waiting for a clearer mandate from the provincial government.
“We just don’t know what that means and what kind of latitude is expected, and whether there are parameters around that, like [if] certain amounts have to be optional,” said the provost. “We just don’t know that.”
“We certainly support the kinds of activities that are funded by student fees. We think that those are important and really enhance the student experience.”