As promised, the 2019 provincial budget makes sweeping changes to the postsecondary education system as we know it, decreasing funding in 2019–2020 by $700 million compared to last year in the name of “efficiency” and “sustainability” while claiming to better prepare students for the workforce. In reality, these cuts, primarily through changes to the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) and the availability of grants for the middle class, hinder the accessibility of postsecondary institutions for lower income families and the middle class, impacting the future of the economy as new graduates are burdened by more debt.
OSAP cuts and grants hang in the balance
Before the formal release of the budget, the Ford government planned to cut funds available for grants by as much as 50 per cent in favour of more loans. This would impact middle-class students the most, as the budget commits to ensuring that 82 per cent of available grants are received by families with incomes of $50,000 or less, up from 76 per cent in the previous budget. However, the budget neglects to specify how much the total funds will be decreased — if they end up being reduced it at all — as previously stated.
The budget fails to disclose many policies previously purported, such as the elimination of guaranteed free tuition for low-income families and extending the amount of time parents are expected to financially contribute from four years after high school to six when applying for OSAP. We don’t know if these policies have been axed due to public outcry, or if the Ford government lost its nerve and is simply postponing the announcement.
Many students are able to fund a significant portion or even the entirety of their tuition through grants, and that is the only way they can afford it, regardless of the tax bracket their parents fall into. What will happen to these students? For starters, they will be forced to take out and pay back more loans. The cost of these loans will be inflated due to the elimination of the interest-free grace period for the Ontario portion of these loans — which gave graduates a six-month window to gain employment before running up interest on their loans. As if students in their final year didn’t already have enough to stress about, now they must frantically job hunt while cramming for exams and writing papers.
The interest-free grace period gave students a crucial cushion post-graduation, allowing them time to find a job before feeling the full weight of crippling financial debt. Its elimination will have an impact on the future of the provincial economy, as young adults moving into the workforce will have less disposable income to stimulate local economies. As baby boomers continue to age and exit the workforce, young people are poised to become the backbone of the provincial economy. It is unwise to burden them with financial debt straight out of the gate, before they have a chance to realize their full potential as contributors to the economy by entering the workforce.
This lecture brought to you by Coca-Cola?
In a thinly veiled attempt at appeasing angry students, a 10 per cent tuition cut has been slapped on top of these austerity measures, painting lipstick on the proverbial pig that is this education budget. While this seems beneficial to students on the surface, without a means of compensating institutions for their revenue losses, this serves to further destabilize the postsecondary education system as we know it. The only institutions that will have help adjusting to the tuition rate reduction are “smaller Northern institutions” that will have access to an unidentified fund, amounting to an undisclosed amount, at an unknown rate.
In reality, the people who stand to benefit the most from the tuition rate reduction are those who can already afford it, because students who can’t afford it would have been able to offset the cost through grants, bursaries, and the free tuition program. With the aforementioned changes to OSAP, the amount of people eligible for financial aid programs has drastically been reduced, forcing students into the debt cycle immediately after graduation.
Postsecondary institutions will have to adapt to an approximate cumulative of $440 million in lost revenue, which will have a significant impact on the resources and services available to students on campus. At U of T, these measures have wiped $88 million from its 2019–2020 operating budget. According to the budget, the average student enrolled in an arts and science degree will save what amounts to $55 a month in tuition costs. In return, postsecondary institutions may rely on cutting back services and resources to students, such as closing libraries earlier or reducing writing centre hours. Depending on the individual, the savings may not feel worth it.
Regardless, postsecondary institutions will be forced to make up for this lack somehow. It is not unrealistic to presume they may choose do so through a dystopian amount of corporate sponsorships. Before we know it, lectures may soon be ‘brought to you by Coca-Cola’ on chalkboards plastered with bold logos and quippy slogans.
Prioritizing the wants of the rich
In another meagre attempt at appeasing students, the 2019 budget states students will be able to pick and choose which “non-essential” incidental fees they want to pay for. These “non-essential” fees serve to fund important student organizations and associations, such as newspapers, student unions, and clubs supporting minority groups. It is perturbing to realize how this move systematically defunds the very groups who are most likely to try and hold the government accountable for its actions and ideologies.
The degradation of the education budget is an example of the Ford government showing its true values; prioritizing the wants of the rich at the expense of the needs of the working class. Instead of balancing the budget within his first term as originally promised, Doug Ford is performing a precarious balancing act between attempting to appease students with superficial policies, while taking away key financial resources which will help them in the long run. He has underestimated and insulted the intellect of postsecondary students with red herring policies meant to distract us from the immediate and longer term consequences of these misdirected austerity measures.
As province-wide campus protests have shown, we will not take the attacks lying down.