The Ontario Liberals announced on Jan. 20 that they are extending the ‘30 per cent off’ tuition grant eligibility to cover about 5,000 more students.

Co-op students in their final year of a five-year program and students in private postsecondary institutions who qualify for the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) are now also eligible for a 30 per cent off rebate on their tuition.

“For co-op students, while their program lasts five years [instead of four], a good part of that is taken up by work experience. When the 30-off tuition program was originally constituted, this was kind of an anomaly that was determined afterwards,” said Brad Duguid, minister of training, colleges and universities.

In spite of the expanded eligibility requirements, provincial student lobbying groups have pointed out perceived shortcomings of the program.

After the announcement, the Canadian Federation of Students – Ontario released a statement saying they do not support the extension of the grant to students in private career colleges and institutions.

“The issue is that the government is funding private institutions rather than prioritizing public postsecondary education and making it more affordable,” said Anna Goldfinch, national executive representative for the CFS-Ontario.

Goldfinch expressed concern over the ministry’s oversight of private career colleges, referencing public scrutiny over the ministry’s enforcement of the Private Career Colleges Act. In 2009, for instance, the Ontario Ombudsman’s office found that the ministry had “inadequate oversight” of Bestech Academy Inc. The owner had falsely advertised the academy as a registered private career college.

The CFS-Ontario maintains that while the expansion of the grant could help 5,000 more students, the funds would be better allocated to institutions’ operating grants toward a 30 per cent reduction of tuition over three years.

Duguid said the Ontario government is committed to providing targeted funding to lower-middle income students in the form of financial assistance.

“We want the funding that we’re providing to lower-middle income students to go directly to those students, rather than the institutions. That’s what’s important about the 30 off grant,” Duguid said.

Spencer Graham, vice-president (education) for the MSU and a member of the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance’s steering committee, said he was surprised the government would extend the grant eligibility to students in private career colleges. However, he said OUSA still supports the expansion of the grant.

“OUSA believes increases to base operating budgets is important and that remains a priority for us. That doesn’t mean we’re coming out against the increased Ontario tuition grant eligibility, because it does help students. It’s not necessarily an either-or,” Graham said.

OUSA continues to lobby for expansion of the tuition grant. The grant currently covers students who attend college or university up to four years after they graduate from high school, and those in a five-year co-op program.

“That policy serves as a barrier to a number of students who attend postsecondary education after the four years after high school are up,” Graham said.

“Particularly this speaks to students who have dependents and children. We also see that Aboriginal learners tend to wait a number of years before entering postsecondary education. The grant doesn’t cover those two types of students, who face particular barriers,” he said.

OUSA’s pre-budget submission to the Ontario government also recommends that the grant should offer 35 per cent off tuition, up from 30 per cent.

Currently, eligible students can save $1,730 in tuition on average for degree programs and $790 for diploma or certificate programs. The deadline to apply for the grant for the winter semester is March 1, 2014. According to the Ontario government, 230,000 students received the tuition grant last year. About 310,000 were eligible before the expansion of the program.

This article was originally published on the Canadian University Press’s newswire.

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