MSU President Ehima Osazuwa’s phenomenally successful campaign last year was largely built on a distinctly ambitious platform. One of its most controversial points was a promise to address the issue of increasing tuition and student expenses. His ability to tackle a post-secondary policy giant during a one-year long mandate was met with much skepticism.
In 2015, the average tuition of Canadian universities saw a 3.2 percent increase to $6,191, an increase of more than double the rate of inflation. The province will spend about $7.8 billion dollars across its post-secondary and training sector, just under six percent of the total budget for the 2015-16 year.
Now well into his term, Osazuwa along with a Tuition Task Force and members of the Board of Directors, are tackling these issues through a number of specific initiatives within the MSU and with its partners.
The provincial government’s current tuition framework, which outlines the post-secondary education funding model, is set to expire in 2017 and the government has launched consultations on “modernizing” the funding formula. With the province running a deficit and a projected decrease in post-secondary enrollment, the government could easily look to students to bear most of the financial burden. For the MSU and fellow Ontarian student unions, the 2016-17 school year is a crucial period to develop tuition advocacy strategies.
The new policy paper seeks to outline a more detailed, extensive, and long-term policy to represent the MSU’s views on tuition. The recently passed Tuition Policy includes a number of requests, principles and goals, and is set to be finalized in on-going SRA meetings.
The paper calls for the implementation of a tuition freeze until the federal or provincial government is able to contribute “one dollar for each dollar of student contribution.” The paper argues that as tuition outpaces the rate of inflation and the median household income, the current framework needs to see more investment from the government or at the very least, a cap on the increase of tuition in accordance to inflation as measured by the Consumer Price Index. The document stresses the need for more regulation in the face of rising student debt.
“While the topic of tuition may appear divisive, the MSU believes strongly in the ability of dialogue and competing interests and protects students from cumbersome and inaccessible student debt,” declares the current draft of the policy paper. Despite its stated desire to accommodate for the diverse views on tuition issues, it does not shy away from arguing for specific tuition frameworks.
The paper includes long-term recommendations, including that “the government should create a strategy to adopt a publicly funded, no upfront tuition model.” The document cites “The OUSA Paper on Alternate Cost Recovery Models,” which describes the system of deferred tuition based in Australia and New Zealand. These models allow students to delay their tuition payments until their graduation, as well as offering several financial assistance programs. In Australia, the upfront tuition model also gives a 20 percent discount to students who choose not to defer tuition.
In addition to defining the MSU’s stance on these issues, the policy paper also alludes to some of the current projects that the student government is currently undertaking.
Over the past month, Osazuwa and VP (Education) Spencer Nestico-Semianiw have met with the university’s Board of Governors to present a number of requests. These include the desire to increase the amount of needs-based scholarships, which recognizes the effects financial strain can have on the academic performance required to earn merit-based scholarships. “I’d like to see some of that funding come from the four million dollars McMaster uses for merit-based scholarships,” explained Nestico. “I think that merit based scholarships are quite inequitable, so using that funding into needs-based would better target students who actually need the money.”
To increase transparency, the MSU is also pushing for an activity-based funding model, which more easily allows students to understand what exactly their tuition is being used for in the university. Osazuwa believes this to be an easy change to implement. It will also be accompanied by a Tuition 101 information campaign, and a letter writing campaign directed to the provincial government in the next term.
Osazuwa thinks that one of the MSU’s most important requests to the University is the removal of interest on late tuition payments, most often forced on students who rely on OSAP. This will likely be the most difficult request to negotiate and implement with the university, but Osazuwa wants to achieve it before the end of his term.
In addition to on-campus advocacy campaigns, the MSU has already introduced an emergency bursary for students in need of up to $500. The $8,000 budget allocated to the bursary program was quickly exhausted after its introduction in September, and by the end of the month, the MSU gave out approximately $12,000. The additional funds were drawn from saved money from other budget lines.
Vice President (Finance) Daniel D’Angela explained that the MSU is looking to revise the program, and is considering alternative sources of funding to sustain it. So far, no definite changes have been made. D’Angela said that the MSU is not looking to make the requirements for the bursary stricter, but noted that the emergency bursary is not a sustainable solution.
“I think our main goal is to provide the assistance that we’re doing through systems that we can but then work on issues to ensure that no student needs a bursary or needs an emergency bursary. I think that’s what the MSU’s goal is and what its responsibility should be. We can do some of the small things like that but I don’t think we should be just taking a lot of money from one set of students and just giving it to another,” said D’Angela.
While Osazuwa noted that the Board of Governors was receptive to some of the recommendations and initiatives the MSU is seeking to promote, the Board’s decision-making powers are limited. McMaster’s Chief Financial Officer Deidre Henne will discuss these requests with the Board of Directors, and is impressed with their initiatives and ideas so far.
Henne explained that currently the university gets the majority of its operating budget from tuition and grants. The province is in a deficit, and looking to change the way they provide operating grants, while the MSU and other student unions and advocacy groups are hoping to fight the increase in tuition.
“There’s a real opportunity for student bodies now, at the same time that the government is looking to change the funding model in 2017, to speak with government and make sure that the province understands, not just from a University perspective … but more importantly from a student perspective of what is important to them,” explained Henne.
The Board of Directors met with Henne this week, and discussed the MSU’s requests in relation to her role on the Council of Ontario Universities, and on the technical advisory committee to the Ministry of Education’s financing model.
In response to Osazuwa’s personal goal to end interest fees on late tuition payments, Henne stated, “I’m going to say it’s difficult, and that’s just the truth of it because we want to collect tuition fees as early in the process as possible for the overall financing and budgeting of the university.”
The university’s current financial system runs with the assumption that it will operate with most of its money paid on time. If payments were to arrive later in the term, the university would have to seek assistance from a lending facility to cover the first few months of operation.
For the hope of implementing a province-wide tuition freeze, Henne says that it has to accommodate declining enrollment and deficit issues Ontario is facing. Henne suggested, “what Ehima could do, is take his tuition request for zero percent increase and request the gap from the enrollment gap to be redirected as a supplement for this lack of tuition increase. It’s yet another alternative in the mixed pileup of complexities. It’s a lofty goal and I admire Ehima for taking it on. I feel his group has a lot of capability.”
The MSU has put student tuition and debt at the forefront of its priorities this year, following Osazuwa’s landslide win. However, with his term coming to an end and a new presidential election on the horizon, the state of affordable tuition advocacy as a long-term priority for the MSU remains to be seen.
With the Ontario government seeking input on the future of its funding formula, this is an opportune time for the MSU to be active in the tuition conversation. Osazuwa believes that both the student union and the University are interested in discussing student financial issues and stressed the need for collaboration between all stakeholders.
“We can run campaigns, we can have emergency bursaries, we can have our tuition policy paper but, at the end of the day, the best we can do is continue to lobby to the university and I think the university’s receptive to the idea of a more affordable tuition. We can’t change the price of tuition just by ourselves.”