Two weeks ago, OUSA made a presentation to the committee at Queen’s Park to speak about our short-term priorities for the budget, specifically the Ontario Tuition Grant (OTG), Ontario Student Opportunity Grant (OSOG), and tuition and education tax credits. Our recommendations for these programs were also outlined in a new submission called Affording Our Future: Leveraging Ontario’s Investment in Post-Secondary Education. You can access this submission here.
Higher education is not simply an expense; it is an investment. The lifetime earnings potential of a university graduate is up to a million dollars higher than a secondary school graduate, and university graduates contribute almost half of the income tax collected by the provincial government, despite only representing a quarter of the population. Economists estimate that over 70 per cent of new jobs will require a post-secondary credential. It is therefore crucial for the economic well-being of the province that a post-secondary education remains accessible to all individuals, regardless of socioeconomic background. This necessitates that the recent investments in student financial assistance not only be maintained, but improved upon.
OUSA supports the government’s investment in the Ontario tuition grant: a targeted grant reducing tuition for students whose family income falls below a certain threshold, and who meets other criteria. However, students do have a few concerns about the ability of this grant program to reach the individuals who need it most, particularly given the exclusion of mature students from the program. Aboriginal students are more likely to be mature students due to delayed entry to post-secondary education, are more likely to come from low-income families, and are often unable to access financial assistance tools due to a federal government cap on Post-Secondary Student Support Program (PSSSP) funds. Student parents are also more likely to be mature students, and less likely to be able to access adequate financial assistance through existing programs than other students. While other high-need groups, such as students with disabilities, have been accommodated through changes to the OTG eligibility criteria, there is concern that Aboriginal students and student parents may not be receiving the assistance they require. Consequently, in our submission, OUSA recommends that the OTG be made available to independent students who are Aboriginal or have a child under the age of 12 who meet other eligibility criteria, to ensure they are adequately supported by the new tuition grant.
The second recommendation regarding the OTG is to extend the eligible time period of the OTG for first-entry students in five-year programs. Currently, students are only eligible for the OTG for the first four years immediately after high school graduation. In most co-op programs, however, students attend four years of school spread over five years, to accommodate additional work terms. As a result, these students can only receive six terms worth of tuition grants, while non-co-op students receive the full eight terms. Extending eligibility for the OTG to five years for co-op students would be fairer to these students, who face additional costs in terms of co-op fees and moving costs.
Currently, the heaviest users of OSAP are supported by the Ontario Student Opportunities Grant (OSOG), which turns any government loan exceeding $7,300 for a two-term academic year into a grant, effectively capping student debt from government programs at $7,300 per year (or $10,250 for students taking three semesters). OUSA recommends that the government maintain the cap on student debt provided by the OSOG at $7,300. In the long term, students would like to see this cap lowered. OSOG is one of the most effective financial assistance tools available to the provincial government. The grant directly benefits those students with the greatest financial need by limiting the amount of government debt a low-income student must accrue to finance their education. Students believe that maintaining the OSOG cap is crucial for the accessibility and affordability of higher education in Ontario.
The final topic tackled in our submission is tuition and education tax credits. In 2007 the Liberal Party made an election promise to reallocate funding spent on tuition and education tax credits to upfront grants. These credits are not a particularly effective means of distributing financial assistance, with families from the highest income quartile deriving four times the benefit of families from the lowest income quartile. Additionally the distribution of tax credits comes in April, which is not a useful time for students struggling to find the funds to pay their tuition at the beginning of the academic year in September. OUSA recommends that the government cease issuing new tuition and education tax credits and allocate year-to-year savings to currently existing financial assistance programs or reductions to tuition. This could be done without additional costs to the government by gradually phasing out the tax credits and using the new funds as they become available.
Students believe that an affordable, accessible, high quality post-secondary system is a key piece of Ontario’s economic recovery. The improvements to financial assistance made in recent years, including the implementation of the OTG and OSOG, have helped keep post-secondary education from becoming unattainable for low- and middle- income families. Yet, in a context where students from the highest income quartile are 2.5 times more likely to attend university than those from the lowest income quartile, clearly there is a long way to go in fostering a post-secondary sector that provides the same opportunities to all students, regardless of financial circumstances.
We are hopeful that the government will continue to make strides in the right direction by maintaining and strengthening existing financial assistance programs. The university sector is at a crossroads: tuition cannot continue to rise, yet the provincial government argues it is not in a position to provide funding increases. This tension will characterize future budget debates. OUSA believes that a conversation must happen to address the financial sustainability of the post-secondary sector, and the sooner, the better. Consequently, our last recommendation to the budget committee is to initiate a conversation on quality and cost in post-secondary education in Ontario, involving all official parties, student groups, government, universities and colleges. Together we can develop a reform strategy that will preserve quality and affordability of post-secondary education in Ontario.
President, Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance
With Files from Chris Martin and Brian Belman