Laura Blanchette

cross campus, students are questioning their future, as many struggle to fill the gap in their finances left when the provincial government cut OSAP (Ontario Student Assistance Program) funding. While their frustration has occasionally escalated to the point of organizing events to protest, it is important to note that even the students who stay quiet about it publically are being affected. The Leveller hits the streets, the corners of Carleton’s campus, and the byways of social media to ask students how the Ford government’s changes are affecting them.

Third-year Carleton student Jenn lost nearly half of her OSAP funding, leaving her to find other means of paying her tuition. Nadine S. lost her grants entirely, which were converted into loans to be paid back after graduation. Nairah, a second-year student, lost six thousand dollars worth of grants and only received partial loans to cover her tuition. Many more students throughout Ontario have been personally affected and every student has stories of peers who have lost financial stability. 

The Conservatives “have already decided what matters more than other things and give the students the illusion of choice that they get to decide what’s important.”

Sam Yee was part of a core team organizing a student protest titled Students Fight Back: A Protest Against Cuts to Education. As a second-year student at uOttawa who is ineligible for OSAP support, she witnessed how the cuts were affecting her friends. Some began working a couple of part-time jobs, in addition to their regular schoolwork and classes, and some were forced to pull out of university altogether. 

“Even if people have not been affected by the cuts to OSAP directly, we have a bit of a moral responsibility to provide avenues to share their stories and how the cuts have been affecting them,” Yee said, explaining her role in planning the protest. 

Taking place on September 10, the protest attracted attention from several media sources, including CBC and the Ottawa Citizen, as well as receiving attention – both negative and positive – on Facebook and Instagram. 

“Everyone has a right to safety and security, that includes financial security,” Yee explained. While students are losing their financial security, they are also finding that their academic stability has been struggling. Adam Aube, a first-year student at Carleton, says that “the workload in school hasn’t changed but the workload outside school has” and “it can take away from [students’] learning.”

Not all students see this as a problem. One Carleton student told The Leveller with a shrug that “if you want it, you gotta work for it.” 

Meanwhile, Joe MacDonald commented on Facebook that “this generation of participation medals and safe spaces and socialism” needs to take personal responsibility for funding their education. Similar ideas are rampant throughout the comment sections on various Facebook covering the protest and reporting on specific students who have lost funding. Jamie Kingsley simply writes, “Your debt is your mismanagement” in response to photos from the Students Fight Back protest.

That said, taking a year off of university to work or learn better money management does not guarantee a student will be able to return the following year. High school graduates have few opportunities to find a position that will earn them a living wage, much less save. Especially for those who no longer live with their parents, putting aside several thousands of dollars for the upcoming year’s tuition is not always feasible.

Students are worried about the negative effects of limited financial assistance, from increased stress levels to a general decrease of diversity within the professional sphere. Aube has witnessed his peers losing “more money out of their pockets” because of the cuts, which directly conflicts with boasts the provincial government has made about the Student Choice Initiative (SCI) and 10% tuition reduction saving students money. 

Marchers at the Students Fight Back protest. Photo: Maxine Neumann

Other students told The Leveller that they appreciate the opportunity to save money through SCI and several noticed a decrease in the cost of their tuition. Mikhail, a second year civil engineering student, told The Leveller that SCI not only saves money for students but it also forces university services and programs to be “more conscientious” about their spending. 

Nairah explained that she placed value on the programs and resources that could benefit her and her studies, while Mikail said his decision was based on “what a university should be like,” which prompted his decision to opt-in to the radio station, The Charlatan, and several others. 

Yee criticized this sense of agency as an illusion, telling The Leveller, the Conservatives “have already decided what matters more than other things and give the students the illusion of choice that they get to decide what’s important.” After all, the Student Choice Initiative generally only makes services run by student groups optional – especially any groups perceived to have a leftward political tilt, who are likely to challenge the Conservative program. 

All of these now-optional fees were also approved in student referendums; Ford is happy to overrule student democracy where it serves his interests. Ultimately, SCI replaces democratic solidarity with consumeristic choice.

Yet this choice is not even consistently applied. Yee specifically mentioned the compulsory athletics fee, a point echoed by other Carleton students, who feel they should not have to pay for it if they never plan on reaping the benefits. 

If SCI is about allowing students to opt out of services they don’t use or are not interested in, why can’t they opt out of the university-administered athletics fee? Because the fee is administered by the university, not a student group. Ford only gives students the choice to undermine their own power as a group.

Marchers at the Students Fight Back protest Credit: Maxine Neumann

Crucially, while some students might be saving several hundred dollars through these measures, without the support from OSAP, many are promptly losing thousands. 

Long-term, many students will lose more. As fellow-Leveller correspondent Jesse Whattham put it when these changes were first announced, “Changing grants to loans essentially amounts to a penalty for being poor. Those with less financial means will take longer to pay back loans. So they will accrue more interest and pay more in the long run for their education than those with the means to pay quickly.”

With poorer students paying the government more for education, then, these policies amount to a transfer of wealth from poor to rich.

Defanging student unions and media (like The Leveller, dear reader) also opens the door to tuition hikes down the road. We continue to predict that the next time a manufactured austerity crisis comes along, Conservatives (or some future government) will hit students with the kind of 75% tuition increase the Charest Liberals of Québec attempted in 2011. 

Charest’s government was taken down by the student movement, but if Ford destroys the student movement infrastructure through the subtle defunding the SCI represents, who will stand in the way of such wild tuition hikes? Students are being bribed with small savings now, that will cost them dearly down the road.

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