Changes to OSAP: Am I not the little guy?

(Katarina Martins / The McGill Policy Association)

(Katarina Martins / The McGill Policy Association)

On Jan. 17, Ontario’s Training, Colleges and Universities Minister Merrilee Fullerton explained new policies from behind a sign that read, “For the Students.” She outlined changes to the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP), which provides students with financial aid during post-secondary education, and which the Progressive Conservative (PC) administration has begun to slash. When one journalist pointed out that fewer students would be eligible for assistance, they were rebuffed: “All students are eligible to apply,” Fullerton said.

In 2016, OSAP was given an upgrade by Kathleen Wynne’s Liberal government. It meant children of families making up to $175,000 annually were eligible for funding during their academic career. Ninety-two per cent of this funding was in the form of non-repayable grants, while just eight per cent of funding would be temporary loans. Loans came with a six-month interest-free grace period following graduation for students to secure a stable pay cheque. These funds did not exclusively cover tuition but also went towards housing, textbooks, clubs, and other ancillary fees. By 2018, 440,000 students received OSAP funding, or one third of Ontario’s student age population, half of whom had their tuition entirely provided for.

Late last year, Ontario’s auditor general warned that the program could soon cost the province $2 billion annually. Toronto Sun articles blasted the program for “failing basic math.” The PC announcements of the Ford administration come as an answer to such criticism, essentially reinstating the pre-2016 program.

There are four major changes to OSAP. First, eligible recipients are now limited to students whose parents earn at most $140,000 annually. Most grants will go to families with an income of $50,000 (i.e. students whose parents are minimum wage workers). The Ford Government has defended the cutback by claiming to focus on the poor, but Ontario’s poor population doesn’t end at a $50,000 tax bracket, and parents at higher income levels still struggle to pay for their children’s education.

Second, no student will be eligible for full tuition coverage, and loans will make up a substantially higher amount of OSAP disbursements. For students outside Ontario, there will be a minimum 50 per cent loan-grant ratio. These were enacted after the Ford government expounded on the need to lower Ontario’s debt. What Ford avoids is that OSAP aid is not a pointless expense for government but an investment in the public future. A graduate’s success is the province’s return.

One especially devastating change is the end to the graduate’s grace period, or the six months before they would begin repayment. This is no longer available, and interest begins accruing the day of graduation. There is nothing “For the Students” about this change, but it does mean that government will increase its payoff from loans given to its youth, already financially vulnerable. It also leaves those students strangled by debt, when they require social services like housing, health coverage, food banks, or unemployment insurance.

The sugar coating on this is a mandate to Ontario’s post-secondary institutions, which will drop tuition rates by 10 per cent. This has no effect on Ontario students outside the province, but the effects are minimal even for those within.

“Needy students will see next to no benefits because under the previous program they were already being provided for,” Liberal MPP Mitzie Hunter responded. “Wealthy students, who never qualified for OSAP in the first place, are being given a 10 per cent tuition cut even though they can afford it the most.”

Colleges and universities will be expected to absorb this loss with bigger classes and less staff. Fullerton’s advice? Innovate. So the programs and funding return to 2015 rates, meaning current high schoolers won’t be able to access the education their more wealthy peers will, while leaving current post-secondary students in a bind. Those who have relied on and expected OSAP coverage, and who are now ineligible, are marooned in schools, unsure how to continue their education under these circumstances and afraid to graduate to be faced with interest payments.
The Ford government came to power on an anti-Wynne platform promising to cut costs while maintaining services “for the little guy.” This change does neither, raising costs on those who most need them lowered and cutting the resulting programs. Backlash over the changes are already underway, and the Conservatives have yet to respond. We can’t know whether they might retreat on policy, or avoid their application on those who already rely on it, but hiding behind a “For the Students” sign won’t cut it.