Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government recently announced a slate of changes to post-secondary education in the province, which included a 10% tuition cut, changes to the Ontario Student Assistance program, and a clause that would allow students to opt out of paying certain non-mandatory student fees at their institutions. The announcements quickly sparked debate across the province and Canada, with some asking how universities and colleges would make up for the fiscal shortfall from the tuition cut. Student organizations across the country were also quick to express concern that the new opt-out clause for student fees would gut the province’s student unions, on-campus clubs, and other vital parts of student life.
To gain further insight into the proposed changes, we reached out to our StudentVu panel to learn more about what Ontario post-secondary students think about the new changes. We received 652 responses from students currently studying at colleges and universities across Ontario.
Student awareness of Ontario government’s changes
To begin, we wanted to gauge students’ awareness of various aspects of the proposed changes. Overall, students expressed greatest awareness of the 10% cut to tuition fees and removal of the six-month grace period in which students would not accrue interest on their student loans after graduation. Fewer students were aware of the tuition freeze for the 2020-21 year, or the raising of the age at which OSAP considers students to be independent of their parents.
Those students who were currently using OSAP to pay for their education were significantly more likely to be aware of the changes related to opting out of student fees (65% vs 44%), the reduced maximum household income (65% vs 52%), and the removal of the six-month interest-free grace period (86% vs 73%). For other policy changes, they showed similar levels of awareness as non-OSAP users.
Table 1 - Awareness of ON government decisions
How the Ontario government changes are perceived
When students were asked how strongly they favoured or opposed various aspects of the legislative changes, it came as little surprise that students favoured policies like the 10% tuition cut or the future tuition freeze. However, other changes saw varying levels of support. As the table below demonstrates, it was the removal of the six-month interest-free grace period that struck students most unfavourably.
Chart 1 - Response to ON government decisions
When it came to the interest-free grace period, a number of students explained that this decision seemed particularly out of touch with the lived reality of today’s students.
“The grace period being taken away is a huge deal to me. Finding a job in the industry is not easy right after graduation. Most of us are going back to our minimum wage job, which cannot fund us to be independent, never mind start paying back our loans.”
Another respondent suggested that the government’s efforts to cut costs would only end up trading public debt for private/household debt:
“Trying to get the province out of debt by putting more students in deeper debt is an absolutely ridiculous way to deal with things. This is a complete lack of foresight in my opinion and the future will not be better for it.”
It is important to note that of the 652 respondents, a number expressed sympathy for the government’s efforts to cut costs and curb public debt. Yet even those who expressed understanding in this regard often questioned the government’s policy choices:
“I understand that the government is looking to cut costs, but I'm not sure that these latest changes are the best way to do so. Much of it is a quick reversal of policies that Wynne recently enacted. I think that the Ford government needs to do more research instead of implementing policies like these right away.”
With regard to non-mandatory student fees, students were generally in favour of being able to opt out. However, one could rightfully argue that further clarification on which fees and services will be affected could significantly alter this result. One student’s response to the open-ended section of the survey highlighted this need for greater clarity:
“I'm somewhat undecided on the changes to student fees. On one hand, they help some people and make for some nice services. On the other hand, they make things a good bit more expensive and I don't use a lot of the services. I'd want to still support the services that help other people (like the sexual violence emergency centers and such), but opt out of some others. I'm going to want to see how this gets implemented before I form a full opinion.”
Expected impact of Ontario government changes
Finally, we asked students about the impact that they expected these changes to have on Ontario post-secondary education. Although earlier data showed that students generally favoured certain aspects of the legislation, students ultimately said that they expected the policy changes to negatively impact every listed aspect of their post-secondary experience and the system as a whole.
Chart 2 - Expected impact on aspects of post-secondary experience
It is worth noting that those who stated that they were currently using OSAP to pay for part or all of their education expected the legislation to have a significantly more negative impact than those who were not.
These results show that Ontario’s post-secondary students are willing and able to engage in nuanced ways with post-secondary policy issues that are near and dear to them. For those interested in post-secondary student perceptions, this study shows a compelling glimpse into how students’ prioritize various aspects of current post-secondary policy.
Canada’s student federations, associations, and governments might also find in these results new evidence speaking to the urgency of educating their stakeholders about the impact of student clubs and governments on campus life. For as the data shows, everyday students are in favour of being able to opt out of certain non-mandatory fees, yet they also believe that the Government of Ontario’s changes will potentially damage the overall student experience.
The Academica Group StudentVu Survey was completed by 652 current Ontario post-secondary students over a three day period, from January 25th to 27th, 2019. Data were weighted against Statistics Canada PSIS data so that the sample matched the Ontario post-secondary student population on gender, age, and institution type.