Photo: Farnia Fekri

Breaking down the barriers to get “free tuition”

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By Keith Capstick

The Ontario government announced on Feb. 25 that new budget changes will allow students coming from families with an annual income of less than $50,000 to receive free tuition.

But many people who’ve been involved in the movement to improve access to education say that the amendments aren’t enough for students’ financial needs and that “free tuition” might not be the most accurate portrayal.

Student leaders at Ryerson, the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance (OUSA) and the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities (MTCU) are all watching intently to see the next steps that will follow this momentous event.

In addition to free tuition for low-income students — which will be made up primarily of grants, as well as loans and tax credits — those coming from slightly better financial backgrounds will be receiving additional grants and support, but not the full average tuition supplement.

The budget, however, bases its commitment on an average provincial tuition of $6,160, while Statistics Canada places this average at $7,868. Furthermore, the promised grants and loans don’t seem to account for more expensive programs like engineering, or general mandatory student fees.

One of the key points in the presentation was that students will also be made aware of their financial support statistics well in advance. The details of how the province will be implementing these changes will be revealed in the coming months.

“Looking at how quickly the progress is being made and whether or not all the logistics seem to line up, is something we’ll be looking at,” said Zachary Rose, OUSA’s executive director.

OUSA’s budget-suggestion model, which they drafted through research and frequent meetings with the Ontario government, was nearly identical to Ontario’s announced budget updates. Although excited, Rose said there are a lot of questions left unanswered.

“There’s going to be a lot of implementation questions coming around, particularly around net billing, which we think is one of the most significant improvements that have been announced,” said Rose. Net billing allows students to receive the total cost of their tuition without reductions being unaccounted for, a step meant to improve transparency around the cost of post-secondary education.

In addition to Rose’s implementation concerns, Glen Jones, a University of Toronto professor and Ontario Research Chair on Postsecondary Education Policy and Measurement, said that he thinks this is a step in the right direction for the province. But he notes that there’s a specific need to continue to fight the boundaries marginalized communities face when accessing education.

“We know that we’re doing well overall — the question is are we doing well enough for the populations that are under-represented in our universities and colleges?” said Jones. “That’s about low-income families, that’s about Aboriginal populations, and that’s about other under-represented populations — students with disabilities, et cetera.”

Rajean Hoilett, last year’s Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU) president and current Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario chairperson, reiterated Jones’ sentiment about the disproportional access to education for marginalized students. He also looked to the provincial tuition framework re-assessment as a key next step.

“In the coming academic year the province is going to be reviewing the tuition-fee framework, which is the thing that allows tuition fees to go up,” said Hoilett. “We have an opportunity in this review to ensure that a new tuition fee framework doesn’t continue to increase tuition fees. In fact we’re working towards reductions and the complete elimination of tuition fees.”

Current RSU vice-president education Cormac McGee is also targeting the provincial re-assessment as the key to figuring out whether this push from the Ontario government is part of a larger plan.

Tuition fees are currently allowed to be increased by up to three per cent each year, and according to McGee if that number is allowed to rise then this win for students will be meaningless.

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