Thousands of students rallied again at Queen’s Park on Friday to voice their concerns about how the Ontario Progressive Conservative government’s tuition cuts will only benefit wealthy students.
“The Ford government’s cuts to tuition are essentially only net benefiting their base, which is students that are wealthy enough to be able to pay their tuition,” said Daniel Lis, one of the organizers of the March Against OSAP Cuts and a fifth-year politics and governance student at Ryerson University.
Local MPPs were also at the march and echoed this sentiment.
“If you are a rich student, if you come from a very very wealthy family, this is good for you,” said Andrea Horwath, leader of Ontario’s official Opposition and the Ontario NDP. “If you can pay your tuition fees up front in cash then you get a bit of a break. If you’re a privileged person, that’s the case, but that’s not the majority of students in our province.”
This is the second rally that has taken place since Merrilee Fullerton, minister of training, colleges and universities, announced on Jan. 17 that the province will be cutting tuition by 10 per cent and freezing it for the next two years. Critics say this will take around $360 million away from universities and around $80 million from colleges. The funding will not be replaced by the province.
Fullerton also announced that the province will be making major changes to the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP). These revisions include removing the six-month interest-free grace period on student loans, eliminating free tuition for low-income families, and shifting from mostly grant-based to mostly loans-based funding.
To protest the government’s planned OSAP cuts, students and local supporters gathered at Yonge-Dundas Square and marched to Queen’s Park hoisting signs and chanting things like “We are your future, Doug has no future.” Students from across Ontario including North Bay, Hamilton, Nippising, Windsor and Mississauga came out to participate in the march.
“It was really encouraging to see that this resonates with students from all over the province,” said Lis. “And it resonates so much that they are willing to make the trip all the way to Toronto to visit Queen’s Park to let the government have a piece of their minds.”
Many also took to Twitter to show their support for the cause.
“If you qualify for partial loans or for almost free tuition then you end up paying a lot more under Doug Ford’s scheme,” said Horwath.
“We’re going to see a 50 per cent increase in loans to replace the amount of grants [students are] losing,” said Lis. “In the end, [students are] going to be paying 50 per cent more back to the government.”
In her speech at the march, Horwath said that the provincial government should be funding post-secondary education more, not less.
“Instead of making things better, instead of making things easier for students, Doug Ford is making things much, much worse,” she said.
Atif Abdullah, vice-president external of the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union, shared Lis’s view on the severity of the government decision.
“I’m a student who accesses OSAP, I’m a student who comes from a low income family and without OSAP and the grants that I receive, it would have been terribly difficult for me to be in the position that I am in today,” he said.
Adam Vaughan, MPP for Spadina-Fort York, was one of the many politicians who spoke at the rally at Queen’s Park. He was on city council with the Fords (the Ontario premier and his brother, former mayor Rob Ford) for 10 years and shared his thoughts on the provincial government’s revised tuition and OSAP plans.
“They don’t build squat,” he said. “They don’t build, they break things. They’re breaking the school system, they’re breaking universities, they’ll break the colleges, and they’ll break you.”
“We’re with you, we will fight with you, we believe in you,” said Vaughan. “Don’t stop fighting and never surrender to the Fords.”
Quebec’s low tuition rates
Horwath says that students will end up with a mountain of student debt as a result of the reforms to OSAP. She explains that this will force students to put off moving away from home, buying a car and starting a family until their 30s.
“That is no way for you to start your lives. It is unfair and it is not necessary in a rich province like Ontario,” she said.
In her speech, Horwath stated that tuition was around $294 a year in 1980.
“As you all know, today in Ontario we have the highest tuition fees across our country,” she said.
Her statement was met with loud chants from the crowd and people booing.
In 2012, the Quebec government decided to raise tuition rates. In response, 250,000 students took to the streets to demand change. The result was a halting of tuition increases. Today, Quebec has the lowest tuition rates in all of Canada, with students paying around $2,500 a year.
“It would certainly be possible in Ontario, there’s no reason there should be a difference in tuition between the provinces,” said Lis. “The only reason is because of the boldness of our different governments in how they treat our students and how far our students are willing to go to make sure that the government is held accountable.”
Continuing to march and protest
Nour Alideeb, the Ontario chair of the Canadian Federation of Students, says it’s important for students to continue fighting.
“Historically, students have always been on the forefront of change,” she said. “I think, at the end of the day, we need to remember that if we’re going to ensure that our student voices are heard, that our priorities are met, that we see changes to every aspect of student life, we need to continue to make sure that the government hears us.”
Alideeb says that there are many other ways that students can get involved such as emailing and calling their local MPP. But, she says that the student protests and rallies won’t end here.
An Ontario-wide march will be taking place on Feb. 4. Another march is planned for Feb. 19 when the legislature session at Queen’s Park resumes.
“You don’t change the world in a day and you don’t change governments’ minds in a day,” said Lis.
“We need to remind the government that we’re the ones they need to be listening to,” said Alideeb.