DINA DONG/THE VARSITY

Back in January, Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced large-scale changes to the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP). Notably, there were significant changes to grant-to-loan ratios, the defining guidelines of independent students, and the scrapping of the free tuition program for low-income students. The Varsity spoke to three members of the U of T community about the personal implication of these changes.

“Education is about liberation.”

Yasmin Owis, a first-year PhD student and research assistant at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at U of T, was confirmed to receive thousands of dollars worth of funding through OSAP in June. Two months later, her funding was recalculated to zero.

Thinking back on the completion of her first two degrees, Owis wrote that she had relied completely on OSAP to be able to afford her education. Without it, she wouldn’t have been able to get this far.

Although as a full-time PhD student she receives a funding package from the university that covers tuition, the amount she receives doesn’t account for all the soaring costs of housing, food, and transportation that come with living in Toronto.

“I’m taking on extra work in an already stressful first year of doctoral studies to cover the funding I lost from OSAP and applying to as many scholarships, grants, and bursaries as I can,” Owis wrote in an email to The Varsity.

Among students and families impacted by the Ford adminstration’s drastic slash of OSAP funding, Owis’ story stands as one of thousands.

For many postsecondary students across Ontario entering the new school year, the prospect of funding their education has become an anxiety-driven scramble for financial security before their fees are due.

This anxiety began metastasizing in January, alongside Ford’s announcement. The previous Liberal government had implemented a program that offered affordable tuition to students whose families earn less than $50,000 a year. Coming into power early last year, Ford’s administration disagreed with the sustainability of such a program.

Their response was cutting postsecondary tuition by 10 per cent, reducing the qualifying threshold for funding from $175,000 to $140,000, and requiring students under the $50,000 threshold to take on loans in addition to grants.

“It pulls focus away from academics and completing your degree to the best of your ability,” Owis wrote.

Compared to others, Owis believes that she is one of the lucky ones. Many of her friends that are without funding packages are taking out lines of credit, moving back in with their parents, and balancing three jobs with their course load.

The mental costs of such a workload can be stark.

“If you’re someone like me, who has both mental and physical health barriers, OSAP cuts [mean] that I have less funds for medication and mental health services that [are] not covered by my health insurance,” wrote Owis. “Those who already face challenges [with] affording education are not spared.”

“Despite having worked two jobs — both full time — this summer, the money I saved won’t even help.”

Morgan Murray, a third-year student double majoring in English and Cinema Studies, with a minor in Creative Expression and Society at U of T, has been commuting from Cobourg to the downtown campus for the entirety of her undergraduate studies. She wrote to The Varsity that she and her parents agreed on the commute to cut down on costs, but now, even that won’t be enough.

“A major part of that decision was because I wanted to put all my energy into my studies and extracurriculars, rather than working [a job] after class or on weekends,” wrote Murray.

As she now faces losing thousands of dollars in OSAP funding, the mounting costs that she didn’t anticipate are another pile of responsibilities slammed on top of her textbooks. Her summer funds will be funnelled to her basic amenities, like transportation, food, and textbooks. Any potential for a layer of comfortable cushioning in her financial situation has all but dissipated.

“As I’ve become more educated from university, whether it’s from my classes or the life lessons learned in between, it is very apparent that many people in government are not concerned about their citizens being educated,” wrote Murray. “If they did, they would find ways to benefit the lives of students and help make an accessible way for all to attend, regardless of their background or family income.”

As a result of the OSAP changes, many postsecondary students find themselves in a ‘catch-22’ situation. With less support from the government, students need to compensate by dedicating more time to pursue scholarships or potential jobs.

However, the more time spent on these activities, the less time students have to focus on their courses, which detracts from their ability to achieve a higher GPA. This then lowers their chances to receive merit-based assistance like scholarships that would alleviate their need to work a job, which swallows up time and perpetuates the cycle.

“It seems the only thing you can do is work harder than before,” Murray wrote. “It’s going to be difficult to not constantly worry about finances, but just taking it one day at a time is the best way to get through this.”

“The next step is to definitely fight back.”

“My heart sank when Ford [made the] cuts.”

Ananya Banerjee, Assistant Professor and Interim Program Director at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, has seen firsthand how the drop in OSAP funding has impacted many of her students.

“I had a number of our top applicants email me when they received an offer and saw the tuition cost of our program. Many simply said they couldn’t afford to enter our program as they didn’t get the OSAP amount [that] they needed,” Banerjee wrote to The Varsity.

Some applicants asked to be switched to part-time students so they could work on the side. “I noticed a high proportion of these top applicants were racialized and from low-income families,” wrote Banerjee. “Fewer individuals from marginalized communities will be entering our post-secondary education system, and those that do will spiral into severe debt in order to afford it, leading to a rise in mental health issues.”

Worries over losing a grip on postsecondary opportunities is shared amongst many. While the Ford government’s OSAP cuts impact different students in very different ways, one sentiment remains the same across each and every subject: a growing fear of the unknown.

“We have to commit as an academic institution to build a barrier-free and accessible education system until we have a change in government,” wrote Banerjee. “If we don’t, we are going to lose the brightest students who rightfully deserve to [be] part of the University of Toronto.”

“Our education is now a privilege.”

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