Western students decry OSAP changes

Concerned about changes coming to the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) about 100 students at London's Western University staged a demonstration Friday.
Western University student Lena Gahwi is about to graduate but worries changes to OSAP will leave her brother, who will enter post-secondary education next year, saddled with more debt. (Andrew Lupton/CBC)

Concerned about changes coming to the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP), about 100 students at London's Western University staged a demonstration Friday. 

Banging on drums and carrying signs, the students took turns speaking against the plan announced yesterday that will reduce the number of students eligible to receive grants and loans through the program. 

The changes were announced along with a 10 per cent tuition cut and include:

  • Students with a family income of $140,000 and above will now only be eliglbe to recieve repayable loans, not grants. 
  • Students with a family income below $50,000 will receive 83 per cent of grants, but no students will receive grants alone. Instead they will get a mix of grants and loans. 
  • A six-month interest-free grace period after graduation has been eliminated. 
  • Students will be able to opt-out of paying non-essential fees (often called ancilliary fees). The fees helped fund a range of services, including clubs, counselling programs and academic support services. 

Student Lena Gahwi said reducing the grants will force more students to take on loans. 

"This will make education more inaccessible to low-income students," she said. "I'm from a middle-income family. A portion of my tution is paid by OSAP grants. I'm graduating this year but my brother is going into university next year and is going to get so much less money than I did and so much more debt than I have."

She also said removing the interest-free grace period will put her in a tough spot post-graduation. 

"We won't have the chance to figure out how to get a job in our field, we're going to be forced into low-paying jobs right away that will just sustain us," she said. 

Gahwi said allowing students to opt-out of fees for ancilliary services is a threat to many programs that students rely on. 

"Those services deal with our mental health, Indigenous services. All of these people are going to be in a more dangerous position," she said.

In announcing the changes, the Ford government said rising costs were making OSAP unsustainable and failing to help students with the greatest need. 

The previous Liberal government increased the number of grants and made it possible for low-income students to attend college or university free of cost. But the auditor general found last month that costs for that program jumped by 25 per cent and warned it could grow to $2 billion annually by 2020-21.

Under the Liberal plan, families earning up to $175,000 could qualify for some funding and that threshold is now reduced to $140,000. Low-income students could qualify for grants large enough to cover the full cost of tuition under the previous plan, but now a portion of the funding they receive will be a loan.

Most of the grants will go to students whose families have an income of less than $50,000.

Two London-area MPPs attended Friday's protest: Peggy Sattler (London West) and Terrence Kernaghan (London North Centre). 

"I've already been called this morning by many frantic students who are saying 'I don't know if I will be able to complete my program next year,'" Sattler said. 

The announced tuition cut would decrease tuition students pay by 10 per cent for the 2019-2020 year, then be frozen for the following year. But Sattler says the tution cut will only put a pinch in university budgets and affect the quality of education students receive.

She also said such tuition freezes are often followed by a sharp tuition rise that eliminates the benefit of the original cut.

A 10-per-cent tuition cut would take about $360 million away from universities and $80 million from colleges.


Andrew Lupton is a B.C.-born journalist, father of two and a north London resident with a passion for politics, photography and baseball.