When Ontario’s two-year tuition freeze ended in 2006, the provincial government created a ‘Student Access Guarantee’ (SAG), promising that no qualified Ontario student would be prevented from attending a public university or college in the province. In order for a university to raise their tuition, the institution had to participate in this guarantee.

Under the guarantee, students are expected to apply to OSAP, and it is the responsibility of institutions to provide any additional resources to meet the costs of tuition, books, and fees that are not provided by OSAP. This policy is meant to provide a counter-balance in student financial assistance for the increasing of fees. The provincial government allows this unmet need to be provided through bursaries, scholarships, work-study positions, or employment between terms. For students in second-entry programs, such as law and medicine, the institution can also meet their responsibilities by providing students access to a private bank line of credit. Approximately 60,000 students received funds through the Student Access Guarantee in 2009-10 at an average of $1,900 per recipient.

The Student Access Guarantee is almost exclusively funded by the tuition set-aside program. Since 1996-97, the government has required a percentage of revenue derived from tuition increases to be set aside for locally-delivered financial assistance. This percentage was set at 10 per cent for 1996-97, and was increased to 30 per cent in 1997-98 onwards. Then from 2005-06 to 2009-10, the set-aside levels were frozen except for adjustments as a result of enrolment changes. However, as of 2010-11, the government has reinstated the requirement of a 10 per cent set-aside. The value of tuition set-aside funds in 2009-10 was $144 million.

The recent report from the Commission on the Reform of Ontario’s Public Services recommended that the government “maintain the Ontario Student Access Guarantee.” If tuition fees are going to be allowed to increase, OUSA agrees that at least a portion should continue to be devoted to student aid. However, we have a number of recommendations to improve the delivery of the program moving forward.

Our first concern with the current program is that it only guarantees students access to resources to fund their tuition, books, supplies, and mandatory fees. This ignores the existence of significant costs for living expenses. So while students can be assured that they will have sufficient resources to pay their university’s tuition, they may lack the funds to pay rent or buy groceries. This is a significant omission that impacts students’ day-to-day lives. With the introduction of the Ontario tuition grant, overall unmet need will fall considerably next year, and there will be an opportunity to use some of the set-aside funds to begin meeting unmet living costs.

Our second concern is that SAG’s assessment of financial need is calculated using money that the regular OSAP need assessment exempts, including employment income and merit scholarships. This is an inadequate definition of a student’s remaining need. This means that students who work during the academic year are reducing the assistance available to them from their school dollar for dollar. Students should be able to earn income from scholarships and employment income and be subject to the same exemptions that the OSAP need assessment utilizes.

A third major concern with the Student Access Guarantee is that it excludes from its purview any students who are not eligible to apply for OSAP. This will yet again exclude groups like part-time students and students with poor credit histories who are already unable to receive OSAP, and bar them from accessing the assistance that they contribute to through the tuition set-aside.

The fourth major concern surrounds students in higher-cost second-entry programs. For them, the Student Access Guarantee can mean access to more private bank debt, as institutions simply assist them in arranging bank lines of credit in order to fulfill the guarantee. OUSA believes that private loans are a wholly inappropriate way for publicly-subsidized institutions and the public student financial assistance system to be meeting students’ financial need. We recognize that meeting the real costs of most second-entry programs would be impossible given the current structure of OSAP, since these students’ need usually exceeds the assistance limits due to tuition costs that are usually well above $10,000. Instead of the practice of private loans to meet the unmet need though, the provincial government should consider creating a higher assistance maximum for these students. This would increase the availability of up-front public loans and grants for these students and reduce the need for tuition set-aside dollars, which is currently disproportionally used to meet professional students’ tuition shortfalls.

Our fifth concern is the use of work study programs to meet unmet need. One way the provincial government supports institutions in providing funding for students with financial need is through the Ontario Work Study Plan. Students do not necessarily need to qualify for OSAP to participate in this program. However, the application criteria for work-study jobs are set by individual institutions, meaning that many require applicants to be OSAP eligible. While some work-study positions offer useful career experience for students, meeting a student’s SAG obligation through this program is a concern. By providing need-based financial assistance through paid employment, students must dedicate time and energy to these work-study positions, simply to receive the funds to which they and their peers already contributed through higher tuition.

Continuing to fund the work-study program through the set-aside has potential to provide experiential learning opportunities and concrete work experience for students on campus, and provides some students with income during or between academic terms. This practice should continue as long as a certain quality of jobs is guaranteed and as long as funding for the program does not come at the expense of meeting unmet need for students. However, we believe that work study should not be an eligible form of aid to meet students’ unmet need through SAG. Furthermore, some institutions use entrance scholarships to meet unmet need – a practice which has a student’s merit-based award turned into a need-based bursary at no net benefit to the student. It is OUSA’s position that the Student Access Guarantee should be met exclusively with a non-repayable, non-merit based bursary.

OUSA sees the Student Access Guarantee as an imperfect but important means of helping improve accessibility of post-secondary education. While there are many concerns about the way that tuition set-aside dollars are collected, to immediately discontinue the tuition set-aside program without first achieving fundamental reforms to the OSAP system would remove a significant amount of money from the financial assistance system. Such a move could cause financial hardships for the many students who benefit from the bursaries, scholarships and work-study programs offered through the set-aside funds, and rely on this funding to continue their education. If Ontario’s universities wanted to engage students and government in a dialogue about returning the collected set-aside funds (approximately $150 million) to the government to facilitate OSAP improvements to meet unmet need, it could be argued that this would be a more efficient and effective means of achieving the policy objective of the Student Access Guarantee. However, as it stands now, OUSA agrees with the recommendation that the set-aside policy currently remain in place, and we will continue working with our institutions and government to enact important improvements to the program moving forward.

-Sam Andrey
OUSA Executive Director