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'Nothing ever stays the same': Minister defends tuition, student fee, OSAP changes

Ontario's minister of training, colleges and universities defended recently announced changes to post-secondary education on Monday, saying provincial decisions were all about the making the system more affordable.

Merrilee Fullerton says Doug Ford government wants universities, colleges to stay 'relevant'

Ontario Premier Doug Ford, left, and Merrilee Fullerton, minister of training, colleges and universities, right, pose together on the campaign trail. Fullerton defended changes to tuition, student fees and student assistance on Monday. (Patrick Doyle/Canadian Press)

Ontario's minister of training, colleges and universities defended changes to post-secondary education on Monday, saying recently announced decisions are all about the making the system more affordable.

In an interview with CBC Radio's Metro Morning, Merrilee Fullerton said the province cares about students but wants schools to remain accessible, students to have "freedom of choice" in what they fund and financial help to go to those most in need.

The changes, announced last Thursday, have upset many university and college students.

Province 'putting students first'

The province is scrapping free tuition for low-income students and allowing college and university students to opt out of the fees that fund campus groups, student newspapers and clubs.

The province is also imposing an across-the-board tuition fee cut of 10 per cent, which universities and colleges say will cost them millions in lost revenue.

"We're putting students first. Students matter and how they receive their education in an affordable and effective way is very important," Fullerton said. "Our government cares very much about making post-secondary education affordable and accessible."

Merrilee Fullerton, minister of training, colleges and universities, says recently announced changes to post-secondary education are all about making the system affordable. (Submitted)

Fullerton said the 10 per cent reduction in tuition fees is not a 10 per cent reduction in post-secondary education spending and the cut actually translates into a two per cent to four per cent decrease in university and college revenue.

She added that post-secondary institutions have "multiple" sources of funding.

Many university and college students taking out student loans are upset at how the provincial government is overhauling OSAP. More from the minister responsible for this, Merrilee Fullerton. 11:30

On the decision to allow college and university students to opt out of the fees that fund campus groups, student newspapers and clubs, Fullerton said that was done to allow students greater choice.

"You know, nothing ever stays the same," Fullerton said. 

"And as we look at the pace of change, we have to be able to keep up and make sure that that things are relevant for today. We value students. We value what they what they learn on campus and their educational experience. And we want to make sure that they are empowered in that that they have freedom of choice."

As for changes to the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP), she said the government wanted to make the program more sustainable. Under the changes, a six-month interest-free grace period after graduation has been eliminated. 

Province consulted 'many' before making changes

As well, students with a family income of $140,000 and above will now only be eligible to receive repayable loans, not grants, and 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. 

She claimed that the government consulted "many" before announcing the changes.

Here is a transcript of her interview with Matt Galloway. 

Metro Morning host Matt Galloway spoke with Fullerton about why the government has announced these changes.

Questions and answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________

Matt Galloway: A student financial aid expert, Alex Usher, president of the Higher Education Strategy Associates, says everyone who is is on student aid is facing a cut that is larger than the cut in tuition.  Why did you make these changes? 

Merrilee Fullerton: First of all, this is an unprecedented reduction in tuition for students. We're putting students first. Students matter and how they receive their education in an affordable and effective way is very important. Our government cares very much about making post-secondary education affordable and accessible. 

If we look at the grants, we're actually increasing the share of OSAP grants for families less than $50,000 dollars a year in income. It's going from 76 per cent to 82 per cent. That'll be an increase for OSAP grants for families below $50,000.

MG: There are many students who already struggle to pay for post-secondary education and they worry that changes to OSAP are going to mean that they're going to struggle even more. Perhaps some of them are going to be cut out of post-secondary education. 

MF: The focus of our plan was to maintain the current supports for those who cannot pay. Our focus was on making sure that families and students who need it the most would get what they needed to to access a high quality postsecondary education.

I would just like to clarify that the grace period has not been eliminated. There is a six-month time frame within which students do not have to start paying back their loans. That's the first thing.

The tuition reduction of 10 per cent across the board is there for all students. It's a universal reduction for everyone. And I think that's an important point. It's going to only translate to a 2 per cent to 4 per cent reduction for the institution.

MG: Let's go back to the issue of the cost of tuition. You are reducing tuition for everybody, but the bar for lower income students to get grants has been raised.

MF: I would argue that's not accurate. I would I suggest to you that students go to OSAP.ca and see what is available to them. Low income students and families can access support through the repayment assistance plan. There are also other programs. And that's why each student, each family, is fairly unique. And I think it's important that we look at this program in its entirety and not just one piece. 

It's also the student fees that will be changed. We're giving students freedom of choice in what they pay for.

MG: Let's talk about that. If you go to college or university now, you pay a set number of fees, and those fees go to support a number of things, including athletics, but also the student newspaper, student union and student radio station. 

We spoke with Jacob Dube, the editor-in-chief of The Eye Opener, the student newspaper at Ryerson University, about the opting out of student fees. He said: "I would really like to know the justification for bypassing referendums and things that a majority of students on campus did actually vote and agree to supporting, which I think is something that's been a little bit overlooked. A lot of these fees have been agreed upon by students."

MG: Why are you now making student fees optional?

MF: There will be more details on the reclassification of the fees as time goes on. But we wanted to put students first. 

MG: What does that mean? 

MF: This allows students freedom of choice over what they fund. In some cases, it's up to $2,000 a year that they're paying in students fees, and over 200 fees, in some cases. 

We want to make sure that students are empowered in the decisions that they make. It's freedom of choice, empowerment of students, to make sure that they see the value in what they are paying for. 

MG: Why are you allowing those fees, which again were approved through referendums on campus, to now become optional?

MF: Well, to be clear, there are two categories of fees. One category will be essential and that's things like health and safety, walk safe programs, mental health counseling.

MG: What about athletics?

MF: Anything that contributes to health would be considered essential. But there's room for the institution. Universities are autonomous institutions, colleges are relatively independent and they will go through this process of deeming what's pertinent to them. So I believe that this is a way to make sure that students are empowered and have the freedom of choice in their education and what they fund on campus.

MG: And if those students have already chosen to fund those programs, again through a referendum, why is the government making them optional?

MF: You know, nothing ever stays the same. As we look at the pace of change, we have to be able to keep up and make sure that things are relevant for today. We value students. We value what they learn on campus and their educational experience. We want to make sure that they are empowered in that they have freedom of choice. And we were looking at ways to make sure that post-secondary education was affordable and accessible for students and particularly for those students who need it most.

MG: I want to go back to the OSAP issue and the issue of the six-month grace period. You don't have to make payments in that six month period, but you do have to pay interest on it, which is a change.

MF: There's a lot of confusion over the grace period and it's very important to understand that OSAP is an integrated program. It's got a federal component and a provincial component. Now, what's happened is, a lot of people think that they have to start paying right away and they don't. The interest starts accruing right away. And that's aligning with the federal portion. So this is to reduce complexity. It's already complicated enough.

MG: You don't believe that it's going to put a further burden on students if suddenly the interest starts accruing immediately? 

MF: Well, the real burden on students is what the Liberals have done by subsidizing higher and higher tuition with an unsustainable OSAP programs. In the auditor general's report in 2018, she called it a ballooning program, an unsustainable program, and we want to make sure that students, now and into the future, are able to get the assistance that they need. We had to get OSAP back on track to sustainability. We take our job very seriously. Students depend on it. I used OSAP myself in my undergraduate years.

I'm a mother of three children. I understand how important it is to have a high quality postsecondary education. And if we're going to do that, we have to make sure OSAP is sustainable right now and into the future. 

MG: It's estimated that universities could lose $360 million and colleges $80 million due to tuition cut. Did you consult with those institutions, colleges and universities, before this tuition cut was announced?

MF: We spoke to many, many people and we heard from from many people across Ontario about the importance of high quality post-secondary education. Many students told us, across the province, that they needed tuition relief.

I believe our universities are strong partners in making sure that students have affordable post-secondary education. The path that tuition was on was skyrocketing and we listened to students. Students told us they needed tuition relief. I want to repeat that the 10 per cent intuition reduction does not translate to a 10 per cent reduction in revenue. 

MG: But that's not what I'm saying. The universities and colleges will take a hit.

MF: What I'm suggesting to you is that the budgets are very big. There are some institutions that we have set up a fund to make sure that, if they have issues, that we will communicate with them, they will communicate with us and we will find a way forward. 

But universities, many of them, have multiple sources of revenue and this should not be disregarded. This is a very important point. Some have surpluses every year. 

I think this is an area where we can do better. We want to be partners with our institutions and make sure that we maintain the communication and find a positive way forward for everyone.

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