Opinion: Shortsighted changes to OSAP, tuition will have long-lasting ripple effects

Students will pay the price for Progressive Conservatives’ political manoeuvre

Opinion: Shortsighted changes to OSAP, tuition will have long-lasting ripple effects

The provincial government’s recently announced changes to the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) have been met with protests and widespread criticism, and for good reason — how can the government enact such a consequential move when it has insufficient data, all the while cowering behind the guise of program sustainability and student affordability? To try and make sense of the Progressive Conservatives’ (PC’s) move, let’s put into context the previous Liberal government’s program changes and delve deeper into the government’s principal evidence trove: last month’s Auditor General report.    

While proposing the 2016 budget, the Liberals announced a plan to completely redesign student financial assistance, based on several reports such as the 2012 Drummond Commission report, with the goal of increasing accessibility and affordability. The principle change would be the provision of a majority of the funds upfront — in the form of grants — while eliminating loan forgiveness programs and tuition tax credits to counterbalance the rise in costs. Other changes included consolidating existing OSAP grants, modifying eligibility criteria to recognize family size as well as income, and expanding support for mature students. This sweeping transformation resulted in the program cost jumping from $1.347 billion in the 2016–2017 academic year to $1.614 billion in 2017–2018 — an almost 20 per cent increase that surpassed previous projected estimates — but should it have led to the PC’s latest program repeal?

The sudden increase is not only due to the change in the composition of student aid but also thanks to an increase of 24 per cent in the number of university OSAP recipients and 27 per cent in college recipients. The surge in uptake rates is what the redesign was supposed to do — make more students eligible for a reduction in loans.

The Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk sees this same statistic as a sign that money is going to those who don’t need it, with no proof of aid being received by the low-income communities. Moreover, she argues that by the 2020–2021 academic year, the program cost would have ballooned to $2.012 billion — a 50 per cent net increase from 2016–2017.

How exactly did the Auditor General arrive at this projection in the first place?

OSAP costs would have to increase at a pace of more than 7.6 per cent year-on-year from 2017–2018 to reach the purported $2.012 billion target. This is more than twice the annual increase from 2013–2014 to 2016–2017 when the average annual increase was 2.09 per cent. How can the Auditor General justify such a projection, based on only one year’s worth of evidence? Especially considering the PC’s own argument that the increase in enrollment has been modest at a rate of one to two per cent? In fact, as the program takes effect and the dust settles, the ministry will tighten oversight and we could expect a plateau in costs.

How do the PC’s want to proceed instead? Their answer is with a 10 per cent tuition cut across the board, a freeze for the 2020–2021 academic year, and the possible opt-out option non-tuition fees. This “historic” proposal will not do much to help those who need financial support for education the most. The Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities Merrilee Fullerton said it herself: on average, the program will save a university student $660 per semester — hardly enough to cover textbooks for most programs.

The government will also not be providing any support for the institutions to recoup their losses, saying that a 10 per cent cut will only amount to a two to four per cent reduction in operating revenues. But even so, two years of consecutive declines could lead to universities hiking tuition at a hitherto unseen rate from 2021–2022 onward if the government does not implement any restrictions. In the interim, to make up for lost domestic revenues, the universities could also increase international enrollment and tuition for which there are no provincial regulations. The other thing to note is that the PC’s have not clarified whether they will be reinstituting the loan forgiveness grants and the tuition tax credits that the Liberals scrapped in favour of the comprehensive grant program.

Empirically and from a policy standpoint, many studies show that a tuition decrease does little to improve affordability and accessibility, but instead lowers the quality of education. On the other hand, other studies have shown that increasing the proportion of non-repayable funds will have a positive effect on enrolment — given time — and enhance accessibility for those families in the lower income brackets.

In the short run, the PC’s will reduce OSAP costs and achieve a more balanced budget. However, wouldn’t taking on a short-term deficit to improve the quality of education instead be a risk worth taking? At minimum, they could have increased the proportion of loans for middle-income families while instituting tighter controls on the disbursement of grants.

In reality, the disbandment of the Liberal policy is just a political manoeuvre. At the end of the day, the students will pay the price.

Ontario Campus Conservatives debate public transit, mental health at regional conference

OPCCA conference opportunity for students to craft, propose policies

Ontario Campus Conservatives debate public transit, mental health at regional conference

The Ontario Progressive Conservative Campus Association (OPCCA) hosted its South Regional Policy Conference on January 19 at UTM. Students gathered to debate and pass policies on transit and mental health.

The conference, as its chair and former president of UTM Campus Conservatives Philip Power explained, was a chance for students interested in politics to gain experience in policy-making.

Public transportation and mental health were the two main topics up for debate at the conference. The conference was structured as a general debate — students formed delegations to propose appropriate policies — followed by a debate to amend the proposals.

Any amended policies that received a majority of the room’s vote would pass and be recommended to the OPCCA committee.

Following a talk by Mississauga—Lakeshore MPP Rudy Cuzzetto, the chair led a vote on which topic to debate first; public transportation beat out mental health by a landslide.

The general debate saw a myriad of proposals, including privatizing the transit system throughout the province, “uploading” the TTC to the provincial level, reducing travel times and costs, increasing transit service between Toronto and the Niagara region, and increasing the speed limit on the Queen Elizabeth Way.

Students expressed concerns regarding the cost of implementing certain proposed policies — namely uploading the TTC to the provincial level and building additional subway tracks.

Ultimately, policies proposing regular transit service in the Niagara region, increased private sector investment in public transit, and increased express bus routes to postsecondary campuses passed.

This gave way to the topic of mental health among students. In the interest of time, the chair dispensed with amending policies, which resulted in far fewer proposed policies.

“There has to be a protocol followed that if you’re being provided with [mental health] resources then you need to follow through with them, and if you’re not, then the university is not to blame for the repercussions,” proposed student Meara Deery.

“In contrast to that,” said student Ethan Bryant, “whereas mental resources and policies on Ontario’s postsecondary campuses fail to address their mental issues, be it resolved that there be an evidence-based… standard of mental health resources, one centred on accessibility and transparency.”

Deery’s proposal failed while Bryant’s proposal passed unanimously; this brought the OPCCA South Regional Policy Conference to a close.

Tuition cuts will also apply to MBA and JD programs, says MPP

Clarification from MPP Robin Martin is first confirmation that cuts apply to these programs

Tuition cuts will also apply to MBA and JD programs, says MPP

Progressive Conservative MPP Robin Martin has confirmed that the Ontario government’s 10 per cent tuition cuts will apply to Master of Business Administration (MBA) and Juris Doctor (JD) programs.

This was also further confirmed by MPP for Northumberland—Peterborough South and Parliamentary Assistant to the Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities David Piccini to The Varsity

The cuts are part of sweeping changes to postsecondary education announced by the Ontario government on January 17.

In an email to a constituent that was reviewed by The Varsity, Martin wrote, “The 10% reduction is an across-the-board reduction which applies to both the MBA and JD programs at U of T.”

Martin represents Eglinton—Lawrence and is the Parliamentary Assistant to the Minister of Health and Long-Term Care.

The Ontario government has not specified whether it will support schools in making up for the lost revenue, although Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities Merrilee Fullerton said during her announcement that, “There are different ways [schools] can adapt… They will be able to determine what they need to do.”

In addition to tuition cuts, universities and colleges across the province will also see changes to the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) and student levy fees.

The rising costs of law school have recently spurred action from U of T students, who began a campaign in October to call on the school to provide more support.

MPP Aris Babikian speaks at UTSC Campus Conservatives round table discussion about youth, politics

Scarborough—Agincourt MPP on importance of volunteerism, Chinese population

MPP Aris Babikian speaks at UTSC Campus Conservatives round table discussion about youth, politics

In an event organized by the Ontario Progressive Conservative Campus Association (OPCCA) at UTSC, MPP Scarborough—Agincourt Aris Babikian spoke at a round table discussion on November 19 revolving around youth engagement in politics.

Babikian, a Progressive Conservative (PC) MPP and Vice-Chair of the Standing Committee on Justice Policy, dove into his journey as an immigrant in Canada over 40 years ago to his role in the parliament today.

A short Q&A session included questions about the difficulties of campaigning, the role of media in politics, and the importance of networking.

“I always tell children, you should go out and volunteer. Choose whatever field you want, but go out and volunteer,” Babikian said while talking about networking. “Volunteerism is also very important for ourselves — you are building up your network and you’re learning something new. You’ll never know who you’ll meet or when you’re going to need those set of friends.”

Babikian also talked about how politics affect everyone in some way and why he decided to get into it. “The bureaucracy don’t care about what we go through… they sit on their ivory towers and don’t care about what we go through. This is one more reason why I wanted to get involved.”

He continued, “I always tell young children that instead of all those people making decisions for you, you should make those decisions for yourself.”

When asked about the difficulty of campaigning and running against a well-known persona such as former MPP Soo Wong, he discussed the importance of recognizing the weak points of the opponent’s platform and doing good research.

“You need to choose your battle very carefully,” Babikian said. “You need to study the riding, the weaknesses, and the strength of your opponents. I knew her weak point was other [demographic] groups.”

He gave insight into why and how he targeted the Chinese population in the area: “Because of my connections and networks, I started building relationships and I calculated that if I could get 10 per cent of the Chinese population in my riding, I could be in a good place.”

To elaborate, he talked about how he used WeChat as a tool to get more involved in the Chinese community.

“WeChat is an amazing tool to reach out to the Chinese community. It’s like Chinese Facebook. I created three to four WeChat groups, and I started attending Chinese events — I went to these events because I knew these events will be covered by Chinese media.”

“All my literature was in two languages — Chinese and English,” he added. “I always took a Chinese volunteer with me. If I went alone, they would not talk to me. But when I took a Chinese person, they would suddenly open up to me and start becoming friendly.”

When asked about the role and the impact of media during campaigning, Babikian expressed a strong disdain for media and said that it is something he stays clear of. “Media is always a dangerous affair. As conservatives, we don’t win with the media. The media is generally negative towards us.”

Progressive Conservative MPP Sam Oosterhoff speaks at UTSC round table on youth, politics

Niagara West—Glanbrook MPP on being the youngest MPP ever, role of faith in politics

Progressive Conservative MPP Sam Oosterhoff speaks at UTSC round table on youth, politics

MPP Sam Oosterhoff spoke on youth engagement in politics on the second day of a two-part event organized by the Ontario Progressive Conservative Campus Association (OPCCA) at UTSC. The event, held on November 21, followed an earlier one with MPP Aris Babikian.

As Parliamentary Assistant to Minister of Education Lisa Thompson and the youngest MPP to ever be elected to parliament, Oosterhoff shared his journey into politics and of campaigning as such a young Progressive Conservative candidate. He was elected to the riding of Niagara West—Glanbrook in 2016 at the age of 19.

Oosterhoff spoke about the lack of youth involvement in parliament, and engaged in a short Q&A session about global warming, the role of faith in politics, and the role of media.

When talking about why he got involved in politics, Oosterhoff said that the Loyola High School v Québec case was what made him want to get into politics.

This case refers to a 2015 religious freedom case that saw the Supreme Court rule in favour of a Catholic high school that wanted an exemption from Québec’s law, which states that religions must be taught from a secular perspective. The case was a controversial battle between religious freedom and the need to follow the law.

“I was about 14 years old at that time,” Oosterhoff said, “and my family is religious and I’m religious. And I thought it was so incredible. It was really shameful that the government had that much impact on people’s lives.”

Oosterhoff strongly believes that young people, no matter their political background, should be involved in politics. “I got involved in politics for a really simple reason: I believe in freedom,” he said.

“I believe that government has a role also to promote virtue and that it’s important that we have a compassionate and caring society for our most vulnerable.”

When asked if he’s treated any differently in parliament because of his young age, Oosterhoff spoke about his tough experience trying to get a foot through a door.

“There are unique challenges but there are also unique opportunities,” he said. “When I was first elected, there was definitely sort of this air of, you know, this kid, he’s going to come in, he’s going to trip over his shoelaces… he’s going to fall flat on his face and it’ll be hilarious and we’ll get rid of him and have a real person in there.”

“So what ended up happening was that it really set the bar low, so it wasn’t that hard to go ahead and win this thing.”

Oosterhoff also discussed the role that faith plays in politics. While he believes in the separation of the church and the state, he also said that it would be naïve to assume that his faith doesn’t have an impact on his political values.

“As a Christian, I believe Christ called me to love the most vulnerable in our society and help people with passion and to look after the poor and the sick and the lonely,” said Oosterhoff. “To say that you want me to leave those values at home would be naïve.”

He also acknowledged the negative impact that his faith has had on his political career. “I’ve had interactions where I’d say people mischaracterize my faith, and turn that into a weapon against me, like, ‘Oh you’re a Christian so you must be a bigot.’”

“So, I found that very detrimental, because you can sometimes try to have a conversation with someone and they just view you through this very narrow lens of stereotypes,” said Oosterhoff.

Oosterhoff has received backlash from the public over his unclear views on whether homosexuality is a sin, though he has asserted that he is “absolutely not” a homophobe.

While talking about the role that media has played in his life and his political career, Oosterhoff recalled an interviews he had with the Toronto Star while he was campaigning, and talked about how media has played an interesting role in his life.

“They did a Toronto Star article on me, and they had a lot of outright false stuff. They called my niece by the wrong name, they had this whole thing where they called my father a soy bean farmer — he does poultry. They got all these things wrong about me, and so it’s very difficult to not to be cynical when you see these things,” said Oosterhoff.

However, he did acknowledge how social media also has a lot of positive aspects. “A lot of the media is actually trying to do a lot of good work, and we have to be gracious about that and not just name them malicious. Social media also gives us a valuable tool.”

Ending the discussion, Oosterhoff encouraged everyone to contribute to politics in whichever way they can. “Everyone can contribute, but the ways you contribute can be different. Different people have different strengths, but you can always contribute.”