Critics slam new education policies

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Tories to fine OSAP thieves

By Jocelyn Sweet 

Students caught scamming money from provincial student loans will face some hefty fines — up to $25,000 for the individuals and $100,000 for corporations — now that the provincial government has introduced tougher OSAP fraud legislation.

Dianne Cunningham, Ontario’s Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities, announced the new fine Thursday as part of the Post-Secondary Choice and Excellence Act, which also opened the door for private universities to set up shop in the province.

“We intend not to put with abuse,” Cunningham said at the press conference at George Brown College.  “It’s not for people who are making mistakes [on their applications].  This is fraud.”

Cunningham said deterrents against OSAP abusers are already in place to the tune of a $5,000 fine, but the increase helps to further protect the large amount of OSAP cash doled out yearly by the government.

In 1999-2000, Ontario put $760 million into its OSAP program, lending money to 180,000 post-secondary students.  As of Sept. 28, 2000, ministry officials say 166,872 students have applied for OSAP, and 126,400 — more than 75 per cent of all applicants — have been approved.

As another safeguard against fraud, Revenue Canada is checking each OSAP application to make sure students correctly declare their yearly incomes.

But critics of the new law say student borrowers shouldn’t be scrutinized more than any other Ontario resident who takes out a loan.

“It demonstrates a distrust of students,” said Odelia Bay, RyeSAC’s v.p. education.  “Fraud is fraud.  Students should be treated the same as anyone else who borrows.”

Carole Scrase, Ryerson’s manager of student financial assistance, said because the fine is so large, she hopes the government examines each case thoroughly before handing out any of the fines.

“[Such a fine] could put a person in an extremely difficult position,” she said.

The number of Ryerson students who could actually face the new penalty is declining though.

For the fourth straight year, fewer Ryerson students are applying for OSAP.  The university received 5,815 applications this year and 5,217 have already been approved.  Last year 6,160 students applied; in 1998-99 it was 6,501; 6,931 applied in 1997-98; and 7,437 applied in 1996-97.

Ryerson’s administration credits the decline in OSAP applications to the availability of more scholarships and bursaries, which increased to $5 million this year from the $1.89 million in 1998-99.  Funding to Work/Study, a program that finds students jobs on campus, sits at nearly $800,000 this year, and Ryerson bursaries are now handed out monthly to make applying for them easier.

Scrase said the decline in OSAP applications doesn’t necessarily mean fewer students need money, they’re just being more resourceful and taking advantage of alternative funding available from Ryerson.

Even though Ryerson OSAP applications are down, Bay said it’s still disturbing that so many students rely on loans to finish their degrees.

“At least 5,217 students will graduate with debt,” said Bay, who estimates the average students debt hovers around $25,000, the same amount as the new fine.  “We are graduating students with mortgages and no homes.”


Private degree-granting schools welcomed to the province

By Michael Friscolanti

The provincial Tories have opened Ontario’s door to private universities, but it’s a plan some say does nothing to tackle the real problems burdening postsecondary education.

“Private universities are a solution for a problem that doesn’t exist in this province,” said Michael Doucet, president of Ryerson’s faculty association, who thinks obstacles such as escalating student debt loans and crumbling buildings are being ignored.

“This is just a smoke screen that I think the government is using to try to convince people that they’re doing something,” he said.  “But they’re not.”

Last Thursday, the Ontario legislature passed the Post-Secondary Education Choice and Excellence Act, which calls for the formation of a quality assessment board to judge applications from potential degree-granting institutions.

“Change is sometimes controversial,” said Dianne Cunningham, Ontario’s Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities.  “But our government also knows it is critical to making the system more responsive to the needs of students.”

Cunningham said she doesn’t know how many applications her staff will receive, but said up to 24 schools will be allowed to offer degrees as part of a pilot project over the next three years.

Some could be holding classes as early as September, she said.

Both not-for-profit and for-profit institutions, as well as colleges looking to offer degrees, are welcome to apply, but the government promises they won’t receive any operating cash from taxpayers.

Despite the promise, opponents of the plan think private universities will indirectly receive government money, either through OSAP loans to students or tax-deductible donations that would have originally gone to public schools.

And if private degree-granting institutions succeed, critics say, it will give the government an excuse to continue cutting funds to public schools, creating a two-tiered system where the rich flourish and poorer students are forced to wallow in a second-rate public university.

The public system has already been starving for cash over the last decade.  A March report by the Ontario legislative library said in 1997-98, 39.6 per cent of university funding came from the Ontario government.  It accounted for 52.8 per cent in 1992-93.

“Private universities give more options for the people with lots of money and way less options for the people who don’t,” said RyeSAC v.p. education Odelia Bay.

Representatives from colleges and private institutions hoping to offer degrees applauded Cunningham as she made the controversial announcement Thursday morning at George Brown College.

Advocates for private, for-profit degree-granting institutions argue they can offer more efficient, accountable programs because they exist strictly to serve the students and make money.

“[Our] boss is a business-driven bottom line, and you’re either real good at what you do or you don’t have a bottom line,” said Peter Brown, the president of DeVry Ontario, which has applied to offer a degree in both electronic engineering and computer information systems.

No matter what the advantages and disadvantages are, ensuring that the quality of the new degree programs remain high is paramount, said Ryerson president Claude Lajeunesse.

“Any private universities must meet the same standards as any other existing university,” he said.  “To me, that’s critical.”

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