OSAP overhaul good news but not enough for students: McFadden

Government’s claims of ‘free education’ is misleading, says Canadian Federation of Students leader

This story has been published alongside Ontario MPP Deb Matthews’ letter to the editor regarding OSAP, which can be found here.

Gayle McFadden
National Executive Representative for the Canadian Federation of Students –Ontario

Maybe it’s time for free education.

For years, students have been sounding the alarm over rising tuition fees and student debt loads that block far too many Ontarians from accessing post-secondary education.

As a result, the Ontario government has shifted away from denying that skyrocketing tuition fees and mounting student debt are a problem to seemingly championing “free education”.

This should be just the victory students are looking for, right? However, in light of clever media spin, it’s time to break down the promise of free education that the Ontario government has been making, and explain why students are still fighting for a real commitment to free education.

In the 2016 Provincial Budget, the Ontario government announced the Ontario Student Grant (OSG), a great victory for students. The grant combined several ineffective and highly restrictive programs, such as: tuition tax credits, the Ontario Tuition Grant (30% off) and the Ontario Opportunity Grant to create a simpler, streamlined grant.

Students were happy with the change. Indeed, this was a victory in the fight for free education. You can imagine our surprise when the government made the announcement that we had, in fact, won free education. As you can imagine, this was not the case. Students had won a grant. A good grant, but a grant nonetheless.

In September the OSG will open access to students who have never seen college or university as a possibility. However, it will also be welcoming these students to our overcrowded classrooms, our high reliance on contract faculty, and our sky rocketing student fees. Students don’t have the luxury of getting distracted by the Ministry’s dog and pony show; we have debt to manage.

Free education requires post-secondary education to be entirely publicly-funded and user fees in the form of tuition fees to be eliminated. In reality, the Ontario government has not taken any real steps to provide free education. Students in Ontario continue to pay the highest tuition fees in the entire country.

In December 2016, the Ministry of Advance Education and Skills Development (MAESD) announced in the rollover of the Tuition Fee Framework, another two years of tuition fee increases ranging from three to five per cent for domestic students and deregulated tuition fees for international students who already pay exorbitant fees.

If there is a real commitment to free education, we need a government that is willing to make significant investments to post-secondary education to remedy decades of government underfunding that has characterized post-secondary education.

Free education is not an ideological choice, but an important economic one. If we want a system of post-secondary education where the government consistently pumps money into the back end for programs striving to keep pace with tuition fee increases, then by all means we should stick to the status quo.

But if we want a forward-thinking system of public post-secondary education paired with a progressive taxation model that makes sure everyone is paying their fair share, we need to unite to fight the fees.

Free education and a progressive grant system are not mutually exclusive. OSAP is not the devil, but it is state-encouraged debt for students. The real monkey on our back is our government saddling students with massive student debt and calling it free education.

The story here is not the Ontario Student Grant, although it really should be.

The real story is provincial governments inability to see that students and our families cannot continue to shoulder the burden of funding our public colleges and universities.

Education helps give individuals the tools they need to participate in social and economic life and is key to the overall development of a society. In order for these benefits to be cultivated, a more educated population must be a priority for any government, and that starts with free education.

Implementing free post-secondary education only requires the political will of a government that prioritizes education and social services, and hopefully we needn’t wait until the 2018 provincial elections to see just that.

 

Gayle McFadden is the National Executive Representative for the Canadian Federation of Students – Ontario and represents Ontario students’ needs on the national stage. The Canadian Federation of Students is Canada’s largest student organization. It unites more than 80 university and college students’ unions with a combined membership of over 650,000 students, including 350,000 members in Ontario.

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OSAP overhaul good news but not enough for students: McFadden