Opinion: Between a rock and a hard place
Thursday, March 10, 20111 Comment
OSAP cost of living estimates need to be updated to reflect reality.
A recent presentation to the U of G Board of Governors by a student group called Student Budget Caucus reviewed the results of a student survey on attitudes towards tuition. One of the results of this survey was that students identified a wish for the University to use tuition revenues to give more support in terms of need-based financial bursaries and grants. However the University has been unable to award all the funds at its disposal in recent years.
The Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges & Universities (MTCU) requires that universities set aside a certain minimum amount of tuition revenue that must be used for student assistance for those in financial need in the form of grants and bursaries. Universities can choose to set aside more tuition monies then the minimum required by the MTCU. Guelph does exactly this and as a result set aside $5.9 million for 2009/2010 and distributed nearly all of this money to students in financial need.
This was not always the case. For example about $240,000 (!) worth of the tuition monies set aside during 2007/2008 was not distributed and was carried over to 2008/2009. Happily, these funds carried forward were successfully distributed in 2008/2009 along with all but $6,000 of that year’s tuition set aside. The most recent estimates show that this year (2010/2011) less then $1,000 will be carried forward meaning essentially all of the tuition money set aside for financial assistance has been given out to students.
This of course begs the question, “what was the problem in 2007/2008?” The answer is “the definition of financial need.” The primary obstacle to dishing out this money was that the definition used meant most students did not qualify for the money.
In order to avoid administrative costs many student assistance programs including those at the U of G use the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) guidelines to decide who qualifies as in financial need. Some student assistance programs use the exact definition used by OSAP such as the Ontario Trust for Student Support (OTSS) while others – such as the U of G - only use OSAP as a guide and make changes as necessary to ensure that the funds are distributed to students and not sitting in a bank.
Currently the U of G increases OSAP's cost of living estimate by 20 per cent in order to ensure that all the tuition set aside can be given out. That may seem like a lot but keep in mind that the OSAP estimate of the cost of living includes some pretty ludicrous assumptions. For example according to OSAP students should only require $7.50 per day to feed themselves.
This really reveals how the University is between a rock and a hard place with regard to this money. They are required to set aside millions of dollars for students in financial need. That money cannot be spent on anything else. They must increase OSAP cost of living estimates by 20 per cent in order to hand out all the money and not have it sit in a bank account doing nothing.
This raises other questions. Obviously OSAP’s estimates on cost of living are horribly inaccurate, too low and need to be redone. (This is not news either. Students and those who advocate for students including Canadian Federation of Students – Ontario and the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance have said that OSAP is broken for years.) How much higher will a comprehensive review increase cost of living estimates by? Will this be done on an Ontario wide basis or by region? Living in Toronto clearly has a higher cost of living then living in North Bay.
It is critical that the Provincial Government of Ontario update the OSAP cost of living estimates to something reflective of reality since this will have far reaching impacts. Many many more students could potentially qualify for OSAP and other student assistance programs and those who already qualify may be eligible for significant increases in the assistance they receive.
This brings us back to the original survey question indicating students want to see more of their tuition money go towards financial need based assistance. Is this really the solution to student finance woes? Possibly, but first we need a standard, objective set of guidelines defining what a student in financial need is to work from. Otherwise we cannot even begin to quantify the problem, let alone begin discussing solutions.
Kevin Bowman is the CSA's Academic & University Affairs Commissioner
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