In Conversation: Ontario Students on Cuts to OSAP and the Proposed Students Choice Initiative

by Aparna Halpé

As the Ontario Government takes aim at postsecondary education, students across the province are raising their voices in protest, and demonstrating that they will lead the fight against the Ford agenda. Aparna Halpé speaks to students at Centennial College, and to student leaders from the Canadian Federation of Students and the University of Toronto Fight for 15 & Fairness who are engaged in resisting the Ontario Government’s cuts to OSAP, and the proposed Student Choice Initiative.

AH: How are the current cuts to OSAP and student services affecting your experiences at Centennial College, and impacting your overall quality of life?

BOSCO DA COSTA, Centennial College student
I have had the experience of attending College with OSAP, and without OSAP, and I can speak from my own experience how important this program is.

When I arrived in Canada in 2017, I did not qualify for an OSAP because I had an international student status. Not having OSAP meant that I had to work a lot to pay for my tuition fees in addition to my school work. My performance at school was not the best because I had to work not only to cover my tuition fees but also to pay my bills.

In 2018, I became a Permanent Resident in Canada and I was able to apply for an OSAP for my second year of College. The changes were immense. First of all, I did not have to work as much as I had to before because my tuition was covered by OSAP. That meant I could work a little less and focus more on school projects and studying. My overall College performance with OSAP was much better and it made a big difference in my quality of life. Without OSAP I did not have any free days to rest or spend time with my family. I was either working or studying at the College. Now I have more time to spend with my family.

We are expecting our first child and being at College while all these baby expenses are happening really make OSAP extremely important not only for myself but also for my family.

Being able to study without worrying about tuition fees really makes a difference

COLIN WALKER, Centennial College student
When Doug Ford was elected I was nervous. I knew the axe would fall on OSAP but I didn’t know where, when or to what extent.

When it was announced that OSAP was being changed, it was unclear exactly how it would affect me. I read many reports that students’ OSAP was being changed without any notice. So I was checking back every day to see if my OSAP funding had been altered.

One of the hardest parts of this experience has been the lack of communication. Having to wonder exactly how or if funding would be affected was an unnecessary burden on top of the stress of working three days a week and keeping up with my studies. I will now have to finish school with much more debt, which just piles on more existential dread.

NOUR ALIDEEB, Chairperson of the Candian Federation of Students

AH: The current cuts to OSAP and funding for student organizations are already affecting postsecondary students; can you give us a sense of what this looks like on the ground?

NA: A number of students and organizations are trying to respond to the government’s announcements re: OSAP cuts and the Student Choice Initiative. Currently, students are collecting petitions to call for more grants instead of loans and for the protection of students voices/ the right to organize by repealing the student choice initiative. Besides collecting petitions and doing outreach, students and organizations are hosting coalition meetings, town hall events, volunteer trainings and teach-ins to explain to other students and community members about what this means. Unfortunately it is a very short time line so people are working around the clock to push back against university administrations, build capacity and educate people about what they are missing out on.

AH: International students are also profoundly impacted by these funding cuts, how do we advocate for their rights?

NA: I believe there is a huge opportunity to bridge gaps between domestic and international students. We need to debunk problematic myths about why international students pay more for tuition fees and address the lack of provincial and federal government funding for international student education. The first step is educating people, but then, escalating this to direct action at board of governors meetings, with the Ministry and with the federal government. We need an education system that transcends borders, and that accounts for the fact that international students contribute academically, culturally, and economically.

AH: How can faculty and students work together at this time? What are some concrete steps we can take?

NA: We are all impacted by the lack of government funding for post-secondary education. Now is a great opportunity for us to build coalitions between faculty and students, work on collective actions and create space for open dialogue to discuss how the changes impact both stakeholders. Besides coalition building, there’s an opportunity for faculty to encourage and support local actions by advertising them, granting academic amnesty, and participating in them directly. We should also plan actions around board of governor/senate meetings to show our local administrations that students and workers are united in this fight.

SIMRAN DHUNNA, Student leader with UofT 15 & Fairness organization

AH: How are the new OSAP cuts and the funding cuts to student organizations directly affecting your peers?

SD: I think there is a palpable level of anxiety among students as well as student group leaders, wherein the latter are just coming to terms with (and resisting!) the threat that Ford’s attack poses for the very existence of essential services and student organizing.

But first, there is still a proportion of the student body that isn’t quite aware of what Ford’s Student Choice Initiative (SCI) actually means for them, in material terms. Many of them probably don’t even know that some students are having their grants retroactively converted to loans. Some aren’t aware that the ancillary fees proposed to become “opt-out” are a negligible proportion of the tuition fees we pay, and without core funding to make education more affordable (or, in my opinion, free), Ford’s program is more expensive than it is cost-cutting for students. That’s strategic on part of this government — to dangle ostensibly lower tuition rates and student ancillary fees without further explanation or dialogue.

Student food banks, counselling services, student journalism outlets, equity services for marginalized groups, social justice and organizing campaigns, and many other health & wellness services would be slated to disappear under SCI. We are aware that this is an attempt to silence the scores of students and communities who constantly challenge dominant parties — whether it be the Ford government or UofT. We have a lot of myth-busting, organizing, and mobilizing ahead of us.

AH: How is student solidarity across different postsecondary institutions, such as colleges and universities, important right now?

SD: As students, we have a lot of competing priorities: heavy course load, part-time and full-time jobs, job-hunting, graduate school applications, as well as personal and community responsibilities. It’s doubly difficult to stick our heads out of our study cubicles when we know our time at post-secondary institutions is short — including myself, as a student in a 2-year master’s program. But we have to remind ourselves and fellow students that this is a long-term struggle that jeopardizes the very foundation of our current and future post-secondary education system.

Our peers, our family members, and our future families stand to lose greatly under Ford’s Student Choice Initiative, whose effects would reverberate beyond his tenure. Solidarity across colleges and campuses is essential. [UofT is a behemoth of an institution, and having three campuses makes us susceptible to working in silos and being divided. But many student groups and unions are currently working very hard to coordinate our organizing across the three campuses, as well as in conjunction with other post-secondary institutions and organizations such as the CFS. It’s also important to build the student organizing infrastructure for cross-institution coalition-building — not just in response to SCI, but against the broader cuts that will surely come down the Ford pipeline. ]

AH: How does an organization like 15 & Fairness help students organize around the issues that affect their lives?

SD: I think $15 and Fairness provides a couple of key scaffolds for our bubbling student movement right now.

First, it provides the infrastructure and tools to guide us to be a technically robust movement. F15F also gives us access to a network and a grassroots movement that reaches a broad group of Ontarians who see themselves in the movement. It means we can ensure our student organizing is not simply limited to the academy or privileged notions of post-secondary education, but also in touch with the concerns of working class, racialized, and immigrant Ontarians.

Secondly, $15 and Fairness campus gives us access to an strong framework of analysis: through the decent work movement, we can ensure that issues of precarious employment in the post-secondary sector are not segregated from discourse around tuition or ancillary fees. The campaign is unique in providing student organizers with an analytic framework that extends beyond the individual student, but to the prototypical worker that we as students currently are or will become after graduating.

Ford’s SCI is not simply a student’s issue; it’s a worker’s issue.