Improving the accessibility of Ontario’s post-secondary education (PSE) system is one of the core pillars of OUSA’s vision. While Ontario has made great strides in increasing the number of students enrolling in post-secondary education in the province, it nevertheless remains true that for many groups a university education remains an unattainable goal. In some cases, as enrollment generally has increased, the participation gap for some underrepresented groups (for example, Aboriginal Ontarians) has actually risen over the course of the last decade.
Given the continued and complex barriers that many underrepresented groups face in accessing PSE, it is vital that OUSA’s access policy paper reflect the current situation and offers educated solutions to address these issues.
For this reason, at OUSA’s recent Fall General Assembly, existing access policy was brought forward for revision and renewal. In building on previous iterations of OUSA’s Access Policy Papers, “A Comprehensive Access Strategy,” authored by Thomas Pritchard (Queen’s AMS) and Adam Garcia (Waterloo Feds), sought to achieve a number of aims:
- clarify OUSA’s definition of “access;”
- broaden the scope of groups that face barriers to accessing post-secondary education;
- and to provide a comprehensive, holistic vision of how improved access to post-secondary education for underrepresented groups can be achieved.
As one of the newer members of the OUSA staff team, this was my first opportunity to see the policy process in action. While the papers are initially authored by Steering Committee in the pre-GA period, at GA they remain living documents, as delegates bring their concerns, questions and ideas to the paper. Over three days, delegates engaged in passionate debate, while Steering Committee and the home office Research Team worked hard behind the scenes to incorporate feedback into the final paper.
The paper, as it finally passed, offers OUSA a strong platform for continuing our advocacy work in this area. In recognition of the complex, overlapping and multiple barriers that people from underrepresented groups face, the paper calls for a comprehensive, holistic approach to addressing issues of access, which would involve government, universities, schools, communities, parents and students working together. As well as retaining many of our previous recommendations, OUSA introduced new access policy in the following areas:
- Strengthening of guidance counselling in K-12: While the guidance and careers curriculum has long been a concern for OUSA, the new Access Paper makes specific recommendations that school guidance counselling teams should include at least on certified Career Development Practioner, who would be qualified to help students determine the post-secondary pathway that best suits their interests and abilities. In addition, OUSA recommends that all students in Grade 9 should be required to have a careers focused meeting with a guidance counsellor to ensure they are able to take the practical steps they need to take their post-secondary path.
- Removing course streaming in Ontario’s high schools: Given compelling evidence (including from a recent report from People for Education) that course streaming in Ontario may in fact be replicating patterns of inequality, students have called for streaming to be removed. Students believe that this must be done in a way that ensures the success of all students. While course streaming remains in place, OUSA believes that students must be advised more carefully about the implications of various course choices. OUSA also recommends that the expansion of enrichment courses (such as AP or IB programs), to ensure that students across the province have access to these opportunities.
- Establishing strategies to ensure a system-wide focus on access: OUSA believes that in order to effectively target recruitment and outreach initiatives, more robust data is needed in tracking the PSE attainment of underrepresented groups. To that end, we suggested implementing the following:
- A centralized agency to assist universities in meeting their goals to increase the enrolment of underrepresented groups;
- The establishment of “Access Agreements” at universities which would make public each institution’s strategic plan to improve access, and which would improve transparency and accountability in this area;
- Collecting demographic information about university applicants through the Ontario Universities’ Application Centre (OUAC), to assist in the formation of policy;
- Dedicating funding from the provincial government to support system-wide efforts to improve participation rates, for example through establishing a community practice, or providing funding to outreach projects.
Even in the short time since this policy paper was passed, OUSA has already started to lay the groundwork on these new policy areas. This past month, OUSA’s Executive Director, Rylan Kinnon, and myself were lucky enough to present to the Premier’s Council on Youth Opportunity. As we outlined OUSA’s position on the role K-12 has to play in improving access, it was clear that our recommendations provoked both interest and debate.
As a member of home office staff, I look forward to continuing these conversations within the PSE sector, and ensuring that student’s voices are heard as we work towards making post-secondary an attainable for all Ontarians.
OUSA Research Analyst