What Ontario’s “free” tuition actually means for students

The government doesn’t know what free means

Jonathan Shepherd warns that tuition for low-income students won’t be as free as it seems.
Jonathan Shepherd warns that tuition for low-income students won’t be as free as it seems.

You’ve probably read the headlines: Free tuition for college or university promised to students from low-income families.

On Thursday, the provincial government released their new budget, which included the Ontario Student Grant and the promise of free tuition for students in need.

I’ve had a chance to review the budget and the fact is that this isn’t at all true.

If you’re one of the thousands of student activists who’ve dedicated themselves to making our campuses more accessible and fought hard to eliminate tuition fees, the fight isn’t over. Yet, having come so far and with so far to go, it seems right to celebrate this small victory.

So here’s the good news.

The Ontario government has finally acknowledged the massive discrepancy in enrolment rates between different income brackets. While 70 per cent of 18 to 21 year olds from households making $180,000 per year attend post-secondary institutions, only 20 per cent of children from families who make $10,000 will get that opportunity.

                                                                              (Graphics by Ashley Quan)

This vicious cycle of poverty and privilege must be stopped. With the new budget, the Ontario government expects to provide grants greater than the cost of tuition to 70 per cent of students with familial incomes of less than $50,000.

The Liberal government is going to open dialogue with Indigenous stakeholders to address the education gap between settler Canadians and First Nations, Inuit and Metis — where in 2011, 30.7 per cent of Ontarians received a university education, but only 11 per cent of Ontario’s Indigenous population did the same.

The government is also finally reducing the ridiculous expectations of parental contribution to university tuition. Many families are unable or unwilling to contribute part of their income to their dependents’ education for a variety of reasons.

Under the current OSAP system, the Ontario government expects households who make $70,000 to give dependent students $2,000 annually — including students estranged from their parents. The new grant system dramatically relaxes these requirements.

The proposed changes to the grant and loan system mean students will get the entirety of their monetary entitlement before the beginning of the school year. No more waiting in uncertainty for your second disbursement, unsure of how you’ll eat until then.

However, a grant system isn’t free education.

When Finland says they have free education, they mean they have free education, without tuition fees. Low-income earners need not apply to the government for assistance, nor do they have wait for their grant money, which means there are no cracks in this system to slip through.

Ontario’s government has massively underestimated the amount of tuition at $6,160; this is only the average for arts and science tuition. Average tuition, according to Statistics Canada, is $7,858 — a shortfall of more than $1,500. The government has structured their new grant program around the cheapest possible degree, so they can claim to offer free education. 

Professional school will remain inaccessible to low income students. For the lowest income students, grant money will be capped at $9,000, which is around $3,000 short for most engineering programs, including Queen’s — a gap that could only be made up for by taking out loans.

But the Ontario government wants to change the structure of student loans.

Currently OSAP is set up so students can only accrue $7,400 in debt annually before it’s considered a grant — a total of $29,600 over a four-year degree. They want to raise that cap to $10,000 in yearly debt — an increase of $10,400 over four years.

This means raising the debt threshold, but without any mention of implementing interest-free loans for low-income families.

This patchwork of grants and loans could then see a young engineering student from a low-income household building even more yearly debt to cover their living expenses as well as tuition — making them worse off under the new budget.

Education must be a means of liberation. It can’t allow disadvantaged students to be held captive by debt and interest.

The Ontario government has failed to make tuition free this time around, but they have heard your voices. They know you’re angry about an education system that would exclude so many.

In the words of the co-founder of Blacks Live Matter in Toronto, Sandy Hudson, “The promise [of free education] was broken before it was made, but the stage is set to shame the government and mobilize people." Don’t stop pressuring the government to make education free — for real this time. 

Jonathan Shepherd is a third-year Development Studies major and member of Queen’s NDP.

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