Liam McGarry remembers the time he skipped an assignment to pick up a bursary cheque that had been mailed home in Toronto, three hours away from his student residence near the University of Waterloo. There had been a rent bill to pay.
That was one year ago, before the most recent changes were made to the Ontario Student Assistance Program.
He is just one of the many students who will be affected by the Progressive Conservative government’s attempts under Premier Doug Ford to trim the province’s multi-billion-dollar deficit by cutting back on OSAP.
These changes, which will take effect during the 2019-2020 school year, include a 10 per cent reduction in tuition fees, the elimination of free tuition for lower income students, the exclusion of students with families earning over $140,000 from the OSAP program, and the addition of loan interest during the six-month grace period.
Arguing that these changes will increase student debt and limit access to higher education, students have organized a number of protests across the province, including the one at Queen’s Park that McGarry, 21, had attended in January.
“There’s this sense of aloof disinterest in you as a person,” says the third-year engineering student. “They [Ford’s government] just don’t care whether or not you survive what they’re going to put you through.”
Finances had been a constant source of stress for McGarry throughout university as it reared its head throughout his daily life.
He started each term without textbooks — they weren’t in his budget. He went without the luxury of coffee in the mornings, tired as he was. He dreaded going to the grocery store because they were trips loaded with revaluations of what had once been necessities. Did he really need shampoo? Fresh produce? Or lunch?
He avoided the route that passed the bank while walking home because he said it reminded him of his situation. He survived off credit cards, watching the debt build up week after week. He turned down invitations to go out with friends because it was an unnecessary expense.
His budget, with the money he received from OSAP, tax credits and working, came to about $1,000 a month after paying $7,500 in tuition. Of that $1,000, approximately $600 went towards his rent, another $130 on his phone and internet bill, and the remaining $270 on groceries and other expenses. His family sent food and other amenities like toilet paper when they could.
It had never occurred to him to go to a food bank. He may have been struggling, but others had it worse. Yet the low-income threshold, according to Statistics Canada, cuts off at $1,959 a month for a single person.
“You try not to think about it unless you have to,” McGarry says. “Once you think about it, your mind just goes around and around.”
Things began to look up when former premier Kathleen Wynne’s government implemented the OSAP low-income grant in 2017, which granted free tuition to students with families earning less than $50,000. About 185,000 students received free tuition that year.
But with Ford’s sweeping changes to the program, many students are anxious about the future.
“Studies show that students are experiencing increased levels of anxiety and depression,” says Nour Alideeb, chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students in Ontario. “Part of that comes down to costs of post-secondary education and not being able to afford basic necessities like housing and food.”
Ontario students pay the highest tuition fees in Canada, according to Statistics Canada, averaging $8,838 for undergraduate students and $10,028 for graduate students.
Roma Rashidi, a counsellor at Centennial College, says these costs “have a lot of impact on individuals in many aspects outside of school,” listing student diets, career choices, and social lives as examples.