(Aneta Rebiszewski/Ryersonian)

The Progressive Conservative government is cancelling free tuition for low-income students next fall and cutting tuition fees by 10 per cent, among sweeping changes to Ontario’s student assistance model.

The province said changes to the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) will ensure it is sustainable and helps students with the greatest financial need pay for post-secondary education. The changes were announced in a press release published Jan. 17.

“We believe that if you’ve got the grades, you deserve access to an affordable post-secondary education,” Merrilee Fullerton, minister of training, colleges and universities, said in the release.

Starting in September 2019, changes will tighten eligibility for grants and increase the cap on per-term loans. Students will be able to opt out of student fees that aren’t associated with campus health and safety initiatives.

The OSAP interest-free grace period for recent graduates will also be eliminated.   

The Ontario chapter of the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) tweeted that the province’s announcement, which reverts OSAP back to 2016-17 levels, will make education less affordable for all students.

“It’s a very scary time to be a student in Ontario — for the next four years,” said Nour Alideeb, chairperson of the Ontario CFS chapter.

The provincial announcement follows last month’s auditor general report that concluded university enrolment rates across the province weren’t significantly affected, despite the non-repayable grant fund increasing dramatically.

Alideeb said students will have to take out more loans to pay for “lower quality education” when these changes are implemented for the 2019-20 academic year. Universities will resort to service cuts and increasing tuition rates to make up for the revenue lost from the 10 per cent fee cut mandate, she said.

Allowing students to withdraw from funding things like transit passes, campus newspapers and student clubs that “supplement student life,” Alideeb said, will also hurt the overall student experience.

In a statement, a Ryerson spokesperson said “quality post-secondary education is one of the core values of the university.” Ryerson will be assessing how the changes may affect students and the school’s operating budget, according to the statement.  

Annual domestic tuition fees range from $7,639 for Arts programs to $12,241 for Engineering and Architectural Science degrees at Ryerson. That means Ryerson students could save anywhere from $763 to $1,224 on tuition next year.

The 10 per cent tuition fee cuts will stay frozen the next two academic years. The cuts, however, don’t apply to international students.

“In reality, Ontario will not be a competitive place for international students to come study if tuition fees for international students continue to rise, even more so after this cut,” Alideeb said.

As for the elimination of the interest-free grace period, she said the province should seriously reconsider this decision.

“If you didn’t have the money before you graduated, you’re not going to have it the day after,” said Olivia Pape, a student activist with Socialist Fightback at Ryerson.

Pape said the province’s latest announcement sends mixed signals to students.  

While the province’s changes are an effort to make post-secondary education more accessible, Pape said the reality is many students will be in even more of a financial crunch.

Fullerton said most grants will go to students whose families have a total income of under $50,000. The income cutoff for grants wasn’t specified in the release.

Since fewer students will be able to access grants in the fall, some will have to get loans or won’t be able to continue their degrees, Pape said, adding a lot of people won’t want to come to university simply because they won’t want to be in debt. “Debt is terrifying.”

The current tuition fee framework caps program rate increases at three per cent per year. It will expire at the end of this academic year.

Universities who don’t comply with the tuition cuts next fall could face financial penalties.

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