OUSA calls for tuition freeze to combat ‘death of public universities’

The Ontario Undergraduate Students’ Alliance is calling on Queen’s Park to freeze tuition for four years starting in 2017.

Ontario universities are no longer truly publicly funded, warn student groups, because the taxpayers’ share of operating costs has been outstripped by student tuition and fees.

Concerned about what it calls the “death of public universities,” the Ontario Undergraduate Students’ Alliance (OUSA) is calling on Queen’s Park to freeze tuition for four years starting in 2017 so government grants can catch up and once again outweigh student dollars.

And the group wants the province to reimburse universities for the lost income, which it pegs at about $106 million a year, so campuses won’t have to cut costs.

“Quite simply, we’ve crossed an important line. We’ve seen a drastic increase in the proportion of operating costs carried on the backs of students who are now the largest single contributors to post-secondary education,” says Spencer Nestico-Semianiw, president of OUSA, which launches its campaign for a “Time Out” for tuition hikes Wednesday.

Ryerson psychology major Alexander Waddling delivers lunches each weekday by bicycle – despite snow, rain or sleet – to help pay for costs not covered by a student loan. He is taking just three courses per semester and says his tuition and fees are close to $7,000 a year. He has tried to use the campus food bank – only to find it empty or closed.

“They can’t keep up with the demand,” he said Tuesday between deliveries, “and high tuition is a big part of the problem. It’s a little precarious for students because the job prospects are slim. In my mind education is a right, but it doesn’t seem to be all that high a priority for government.”

The portion of province-wide university operating costs covered by student tuition and fees hit 51 per cent in 2012, according to OUSA, leaving government grants to pay for 43 per cent and other sources making up the rest.

However MPP Reza Moridi, Ontario’s minister of training, colleges and universities, noted the “net cost” to students of university is much lower than the “sticker” price once $1.3 billion in yearly government loans, grants and rebates are factored in.

“Our government looks forward to working closely with student leaders and institutions to develop a renewed tuition framework that continues to limit tuition fees and keeps post-secondary education accessible for all students.”

Some 70 per cent of student aid does not need to be repaid, Moridi noted. He said per-student grants to universities increased by 28 per cent between 2003 and 2014-2015, and is up about 36 per cent for community colleges.

“When combining government student debt and private student lines of credit, Ontario had the third lowest average undergraduate student loan debt in 2012,” said Moridi, “and only 55 per cent of undergraduate students had any student debt upon graduation.”

Still, the government has stopped calling Ontario’s universities “publicly funded” in favour of the term “publicly assisted.”

The Canadian Federation of Students Ontario (CFS-O) is also calling for a tuition freeze starting in 2017, through a campaign it calls The Hike Stops Here.

“By 2017, Ontario tuition will have gone up by about 108 per cent since this government took office in 2003, and it’s put education out of reach of many students,” said federation president Rajean Hoilett, whose group wants Queen’s Park to cut tuition by 50 per cent over the next few years.

“The end of public higher education in Ontario is not just symbolically significant, it has a real financial impact on young people’s success,” said Nestico-Semianiw.

The average Ontario undergraduate pays about $7,868 in tuition, well above the Canadian average of $6,191.

The government set a yearly 3 per cent cap on tuition hikes for regulated programs from 2013 to 2017, which was down from the previous 5 per cent cap from 2006 to 2013 – a drop universities predicted would cost them about $459 million in revenue by 2017.

This time, OUSA wants the government to reimburse universities with money it gets from scrapping the post-secondary tax credits, on which it spends some $340 million a year, said Nestico-Semianiw.

“Some of that is used by students in need, but we know a lot of higher income families also use it,” he said. Both student groups want the government to re-allocate the tax credit money to lower the “up-front sticker price” of tuition so more low-income students can afford to go.

Struggling to stave off student debt:

She works two full shifts at a coffee shop on weekends, babysits one night a week and has just landed a part-time job teaching art to pre-schoolers.

Yet Ryerson student Cassandra Myers wants even more part-time work to make sure she’s not saddled with debt from tuition when she graduates.

“I do get OSAP (Ontario Student Assistance Program) but I’m terrified of not being able to pay it back,” said the 20-year-old, who is majoring in child and youth care, which has a tuition of about $7,000.

“I’d much rather have lower tuition, although compared to the United States we’re much better off, and my university has given me scholarships and all sorts of opportunities,” said Myers, an A student.

“The fact I have to go so far above and beyond to make money is great for building character, but it’s very stressful.”

‘Disheartening’ struggle to stay afloat:

Third-year journalism student Pascale Diverlus said she can’t afford to stay at Ryerson this semester after falling on hard times and running out of tuition money.

“It’s disheartening, but the tuition is almost $7,000 a year and I have other expenses and send money back to Haiti and tuition is astronomical — it’s simply too high,” said Diverlus, 21, who came to Canada 10 years ago from Haiti.

“It’s a ridiculous amount of money to pay for an education that you need in order to get a job.”

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