I’m going to be honest - writing this presidential update was difficult. At the time of my last update, OUSA was gearing up for one of our most productive months of the year with our In It Together Reception at Queen’s Park, our Spring General Assembly, the release of the Ontario Budget, and our Partners in Higher Education Dinner. In the post-secondary sector, students were beginning to study for finals, confirm their summer plans, begin to consider their next steps after completing their post-secondary journey, and say their goodbyes as the spring academic year came to a close. Within the span of a couple of days, global society recognized the magnitude of our pandemic - and what immediate measures were necessary to ensure that we can help our communities stay healthy, and to help support our healthcare system.
First off, I want to acknowledge this is an extremely difficult period for many students. I am sorry if you didn’t get to soak up your last lecture, say goodbye to your favourite professor or lab partner, and I’m especially sorry if your convocation has been cancelled. OUSA’s vision continues to strive for an accessible, affordable, accountable and high quality post-secondary education system in Ontario. In light of COVID-19, we have had to reimagine what our role is to accomplish this vision. We had to make incredibly difficult decisions to move our general assembly virtually and postpone our Partners in Higher Education Dinner. We began to assess what COVID-19 meant for students. Some of our concerns included uncertainty about what jobs and the workforce will now look like for the graduates of 2020 and the implications of measures necessary to stop the spread of COVID-19 for students’ work-integrated learning and summer employment opportunities. We recognize that students and graduates are in unique and precarious financial situations and that OSAP repayments pose a barrier to financial security. Further, we realize social and physical distancing measures will have implications on the mental health of our students and how these measures can escalate unsafe situations with respect to domestic and gender-based violence. We empathize with the difficult positions international and exchange students have been placed in, and are acutely aware that without access to technology or internet, many students will face additional barriers to pursuing their education.
In short, COVID-19, within the span of a few days, created significant access barriers to the quality and affordability of Ontario’s post-secondary education system. As President, I am proud to affirm that we have been working diligently (albeit from home) to do what we can to lessen the barriers associated with this pandemic every step of the way. Since the global pandemic was announced, our team worked quickly to develop an action plan so that our General Assembly policy process could continue virtually. Thank you to the authors and Home Office staff for their work to prepare this over the past two weeks - and thank you in advance to our delegates who will begin to work with us through this new process beginning today. I am delighted that we will be able to pass our policy papers by April 20th, and can continue to be leaders in the post-secondary sector with promising policy recommendations on the topics of gender-based violence prevention and response; support for international students; and support for rural and northern students. Additionally, OUSA led and coordinated two letters - calling on Minister Qualtrough and Minister Hussen in the federal government, and Ontario’s Minister of Colleges and Universities, the Honourable Ross Romano, to implement a six-month moratorium on interest and student loan repayments, in collaboration with the Undergraduates of Canadian Research Intensive Universities (UCRU) and the College Student Alliance (CSA). Read our full federal letter here, provincial here, and our responses to their announcements here and here.
This Wednesday, during Minster Phillips’ COVID-19 Action Plan and Economic and Fiscal Update, in addition to the moratorium on OSAP payments, he announced the expansion of the Campus Safety Grant. This was one of our key asks included in OUSA’s Pre-Budget Submission this winter - and illustrates the importance of investing in gender-based violence in precarious fiscal times.
Over the past couple of weeks, we have also been advocating for OSAP eligibility criteria to recognize lost summer employment as well as reductions in parent’s disposable income thresholds for dependent students; we have been advocating for solutions for greater access to broadband internet; and we are advocating for some of the $1.0 billion COVID-19 contingency fund to go towards mental health initiatives that can be accessed remotely. Rest assured, we will continue to raise these concerns and advocate for our students.
As we adjust to our new reality, there will be more challenges. We do not know how long this will last, and we will need to reflect on how universities can continue to provide a high quality education through online learning over the summer and potentially into the fall. This requires a drastic shift in delivery and pedagogy - and one that we hope to support.
On a final note, I want to assure you that OUSA is here to support you and to please get in contact with our team or your Steering Committee member if you have concerns that we can help to address.