Free-tuition program is gone, tuition reduced and student fees are no longer mandatory, Ford government announces

The Ontario government says universities and colleges will have to “adapt” to the loss of $440 million in revenue under its plan to cut tuition for post-secondary students by 10 per cent.

Post-secondary Minister Merrilee Fullerton’s set of reforms, announced Thursday, will also mean an end to the previous Liberal government’s “free tuition” program, reverting to a grant-and-loan system that she said will target the neediest students.

Along with the tuition decrease for students, Fullerton also announced the end of most mandatory “ancillary” fees starting this fall, which can add as much as $2,000 a year to students’ post-secondary costs.

Such fees fund all kinds of on-campus activities and clubs, including student government, and students will only be required to continue paying for those programs that support health and wellness, or mental health — like athletics, walksafe programs or counselling and career services. The rest they can opt-out of.

The changes mean “significant savings for students and their families,” Fullerton said, while also addressing the concerns of the auditor general about the cost and effectiveness of the current student aid system.

Regarding the loss of revenue with the tuition cut — a decrease Fullerton called “unprecedented” in a province where university tuition is now the highest in the country — she said “I have full confidence in our institutions, colleges and universities where they will be able to determine what they need to do to change, to adapt, and innovate.”

She later told reporters that, otherwise, she can “say clearly the operating grants will not be reduced” to institutions.

Former Liberal premier Kathleen Wynne, now her party’s post-secondary critic, said the Ford government’s plan will “jeopardize” the quality of education and lead to skyrocketing student debt, while universities’ warned the move will “negatively affect” them.

Liberal MPP Mitzie Hunter — a former post-secondary minister — said “only (Premier) Doug Ford would introduce a student aid plan that will help the wealthiest students” who are “being given a 10 per cent tuition cut even though they can afford it the most.”

Fullerton said the government’s revamped student aid, or OSAP, system, is more financially sustainable. Under the changes, students from the lowest-income families will qualify for non-repayable grants, though part of their student aid will also include a repayable loan.

No student whose parents earn more than $140,000 will be eligible for any grant.

In her report last December, Ontario’s auditor general was critical of the previous government’s free tuition programs, saying the cost would soon hit $2 billion a year — 50 per cent higher than estimated, and that there was no proof more low-income students were entering post-secondary.

While student leaders were pleased with the tuition cut, they warned that without mandatory fees to cover the costs of student governments, the province “has effectively destroyed student representation at the college level,” said the College Student Alliance.

“Student unions have become more than a just a vehicle for advocacy — they provide students with essential services and supports, improve the affordability of post-secondary education and provide experiential learning opportunities that help students develop skills to enter the workforce,” said the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance.

Article by Kristin Rushowy for the Toronto Star