Beginning in the 2017-18 school year, changes to the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) will make post-secondary education effectively free for students coming from families earning less than $50,000 annually.
At the beginning of March, the Ontario government unveiled the new Ontario Student Grant as part of its 2016 budget.
The changes include ensuring students whose parents earn the median annual income of $83,000 or less have access to enough grants to cover tuition costs, eliminating student loan debt for students whose parents earn less than $50,000, and ensuring no student receives less non-repayable aid through the new grant program than under the existing framework.
Under the new Ontario Student Grant program, a number of existing assistance initiatives will be rolled into a single, non-repayable grant package, eliminating average tuition fees for more than 150,000 low- and middle-income families, according to an Ontario government release.
Michael Barkman, chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students-Manitoba, said he believes the policy is a step in the right direction and argued Manitoba can adopt a similar grant-based system.
Barkman said up-front support – as opposed to Manitoba’s tax rebate formula that assists graduates who work in-province after completing their studies – would make post-secondary education more feasible for low-income families.
“The Ontario grant program creates tuition affordability for students, especially students from low-income families, which the tax rebate system in Manitoba isn’t exactly creating,” Barkman said.
“Tax rebates are not really advantageous for low-income families as they can only actually claim that amount if they graduate and gain employment within the province for a few years,” he added. “But what if that doesn’t happen?”
Yanisa Wu, a member of the University of Manitoba Student Action Network (SAN), said the Ontario program doesn’t go far enough.
She said the program fails to completely eliminate all fees, which she called disappointing, but claimed Canada can afford to make post-secondary education free for all students.
She added that even while austerity measures and budget cuts are unfolding at the University of Manitoba, and across Canada in general, increasing tuition costs are making post-secondary education unaffordable for prospective students.
Tuition fees in Manitoba were frozen for nearly a decade before increases were limited to inflation in 2009. Currently, Manitoba tuition rates are among the lowest in the country.
Beginning in 2015, interest was struck from the provincial portion of student loans in Manitoba.
In the run-up to a spring provincial election, the incumbent NDP government has committed to maintaining low tuition rates. In January, the government pledged an additional $27.9 million in funding to universities and colleges, according to the province.
In the fall, the Manitoba Liberals announced a plan to convert all student loans into non-repayable grants in an effort to tackle long-term student debts.
The Progressive Conservatives have yet to unroll their post-secondary platform, but have hinted at reforming the grants and bursaries program.