Northern students, student with disabilities, and finance on the agenda
From Nov. 2-4 the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance (OUSA) held their biannual General Assembly in Waterloo, Ont. McMaster sent seven delegates, including MSU VP Education Huzaifa Saeed and MSU President Siobhan Stewart.
OUSA, McMaster’s educational lobbying body,of which the McMaster Student Union is a paying member, has been in the spotlight of late for endorsing a province-wide tuition freeze. They argue that continued tuition increases will not fix province-wide funding issues; rather, it will exacerbate the problem, causing students to use higher amounts of provincial loans and grants.
Beyond the direct financial implications, OUSA has argued that continued tuition increases will make PSE less accessible to low and middle-income groups and will threaten youth employability.
The General Assembly aimed to develop OUSA’s priorities for the next year. The focus areas at the Waterloo conference were Northern and Rural Students, Students with Disabilities,and Student Financial Aid.
All three focus areas were concerned with how to strengthen infrastructure and remove financial barriers for students by lobbying the provincial government. Affordability and financial assistance for students were recurring themes throughout the conference papers.
The plenary policy paper on Rural and Northern Students makes recommendations on how the provincial government can improve accessibility and participation of rural and northern students in post-secondary education (PSE).
The paper specifically defines a student as a Northern or Rural Student if they live in Thunder Bay, Cochrane, Algoma, Sudbury, Timiskaming, Nipissing, Manitoulin or Parry Sound.
The report discusses how these young people struggle to attend post-secondary institutions. If these students are able to access PSE, they often go on to incur sizeable travel and commuting costs.
Currently, the provincial government provides $500 per term to students commuting to a campus 80 kilometers or more from their home. For students who are living away from home, they offer $300 per term, provided that the student’s permanent home address is 80 kilometers or more from a campus.
Northern students also typically borrow at higher rates, using on average $7,496 in government loans, compared to the provincial average of $6,601.
Students with disabilities also represent another group that disproportionately shoulders the burden of high costs associated with PSE.
The Students with Disabilities policy paper emphasized how financial assistance is difficult for students with disabilities to access. It specifically noted how students with disabilities are often unable to meet OSAP requirements and funding is occasionally off-limits for students who are only part-time students or who have temporary disabilities.
The Financial Assistance policy paper re-affirms OUSA’s position on tuition increases in Ontario. More specifically, it advocates for wide-sweeping changes to OSAP including removing ineligibilities and updating the loan structure.
OSAP is currently capped at $12,240 (for a two-term academic year). OUSA has argued that this limit does not adequately help students, and forces students to take out private loans, seek additional employment or, in the worst-case, drop out of school. The organization has recommended that if tuition increases it should be by no more than the inflation rate (calculated by the Ontario Consumer Price Index).
Shivani Persad, one of the McMaster delegates and the McMaster Advocacy Street Team Coordinator, hopes to plan events back on campus that promote current policies being advocated by OUSA. Persad explained that the team will be promoting part of the larger OUSA-run mental health campaign, which will encompass some discussion on students with disabilities.
OUSA, and other student organizations such as the Canadian Federation of Students, continue to advocate for reductions or freezes to tuition. In the next semester, OUSA will discuss issues regarding Public-Private Partnerships and Online Learning.