Tuition advocacy comes to fruition

Rachel Katz
March 3, 2016
This article was published more than 2 years ago.
Est. Reading Time: 3 minutes

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The end of reading week and the return to midterms and papers is never pleasant. However, the end of first week back from the break for Ontario universities was punctuated with a surprise from the provincial government. With the release of the budget for the upcoming year, the province introduced a free tuition policy for low-income students.

According to the budget, students from families with a collective annual income of $50,000 or less are entitled to a grant that covers the average cost of tuition in Ontario. “If you're a student coming from a low-income family and you're paying average or below-average tuition, that's where that free tuition designation comes from,” explained Spencer Nestico-Semianiw, VP (Education) of the MSU, and President of the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance. For university students, that grant is worth a little over $6,000 a year while college students will see a grant of around $2,000.

The money required to fund this initiative is already being used within the postsecondary education sector. The government is repurposing several smaller grants, including the Ontario Student Opportunity Grant, the Ontario Student Access Grant and the 30 percent off tuition grant. However, the majority of the funding comes from the elimination of the tuition and education tax credit, something OUSA has advocated for over the course of the last decade.

“That was something that we are absolutely ecstatic about because we're now using the money that was previously used for tax credits, which wasn't up-front, it was going more towards higher-income families and students who didn't need it and so now the money's being repackaged and put into the hands of students who need it most,” said Nestico-Semianiw.

For long-term advocates of affordable tuition, the new budget marks a significant victory.

“These were recommendations that OUSA has clearly had in our policy papers for a number of years and we've seen a large number of those recommendations in this budget … For any student that was benefitting under the 30 percent off tuition grant previously, they are still going to be receiving at least the same amount of money now and the students who need it the most are going to be benefitting even more,” explained Nestico-Semianiw. He added that the OUSA’s advocacy week in December launched a renewed interest in discussing tuition in the province.

Despite the perks, the free tuition plan has left many skeptical. Some articles published misleading headlines implying the total erasure of tuition, and others raised the concern that the constant inflation of tuition means that the $6,000 calculation will likely be inaccurate just a few years into the future. The calculation of the grant also only considers the base price of tuition. Universities and colleges require students to pay mandatory fees beyond the cost of classes, including books, student union membership fees and living expenses.

Additionally, the new grant is calculated based on the average tuition for students in general arts and science programs, meaning thousands of students, such as those in engineering programs whose parents make less than $50,000, might still have to cover some of their own tuition depending on the amount of money they are granted.

“These were recommendations that OUSA has clearly had in our policy papers for a number of years and we've seen a large number of those recommendations in this budget." 

Despite the concerns that have been raised, Nestico-Semianiw stressed his excitement over the policy changes. “To be completely frank they're absolutely fantastic,” he said. “Obviously [OUSA is] going to continue working with the government to make sure that tuition is affordable for students and that it doesn't outpace what we've seen in this budget … [but] I'm optimistic that we'll be able to work so that the next tuition framework doesn't lessen the impact of these changes but that's a conversation that still has to happen.”

While the new tuition policy is something for OUSA to be proud of, work remains to be done. The organization is currently occupied with helping the Ontario government finalize the specifics of the new grant. This will be followed up by more work on the new tuition framework, a task OUSA began to work on in January — a letter-writing campaign asking for a tuition freeze was one of their first advocacy efforts related to the framework.

For his part, Nestico-Semianiw thinks these are positive changes and hopes that his successors in the organization will continue to advocate for affordable tuition. “I think this opens up another very good conversation, but I think the next student executive will have to have those conversations too.”

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