03/25/2019 16:40 EDT | Updated 03/25/2019 17:02 EDT

Ford's OSAP Cuts Are A Debt Sentence For Working-Class Students

Growing up low-income, I too had to make the impossible decision between staggering debt and a better future.

Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images
Ontario Premier Doug Ford, then PC leader, attends a debate at Cambrian College, Sudbury, Ont., on April 11, 2018.

Ford's malicious changes to OSAP funding are remarkable in that they have achieved the feat of, incredibly, making post-secondary even more unaffordable in this province.

Ontario is already the home of the most expensive tuition in the country. Ford's changes have made accessing post-secondary education — and the opportunity it represents to try and better one's position in life — just that much harder of a decision for students coming from low-income backgrounds.

I come from such a background myself. As the son of a retail worker in a low-income, single-parent family, I can tell you personally that at an early age you learn to fear debt. It becomes a scary, treacherous and all-encompassing fear that invades your thoughts during this pivotal life stage when you're considering your post-secondary ambitions, and your future in general.

Growing up, I watched my mother struggle every day to keep food on the table, to make rent, to juggle multiple jobs, to stay on top of our bills, to look after me and make sure I got the future she wanted me to have in spite of our economic circumstance. I watched as she wore herself down working long hours and weekends, all the while leaving me with my grandparents so she could earn even just a little extra income.

My mother and I growing up.

It was still never enough. No matter how hard she worked to get ahead, and worked hard she did, we always struggled. She always made sure I was looked after, but saving for my education? That just wasn't an option when you're always wondering which "convenience" you'll have to cut next in order to make rent.

A kid in a working-class family learns a lot by watching their parents' struggles and hard work. You get a deep appreciation for fearing debt. You see how hard your family worked to try and keep it at bay, to keep everything together without wracking up more. After 18 years of that, you eventually find yourself deciding whether or not to pursue post-secondary — and you can't help but feel a sense of guilt just considering it. All that work, only to then dive straight into the red, hedging your bets on what you hope is a chance to help your family.

What Ford is doing makes me angry, but it doesn't surprise me.

I watched as some of my most intelligent, talented peers forewent higher education because of their fear of taking on debt, and the uncertainty of what would happen if they made the wrong decision or a job didn't pan out for them after. They denied themselves their own chance at opportunity because this province does not take seriously the necessity of ensuring post-secondary education is economically accessible.

When Kathleen Wynne's government converted OSAP loans to grant-based funding for low-income families — making tuition effectively free for low-income students — it was unquestionably a huge step forward in terms of making education more accessible. I had hope that I would never again have to hear a story like my peers' again. Over 40 per cent of student enrolments in 2017, the year the changes came into effect, received the grants, which gives you an idea of just how significant these financial barriers really are.

Eric Gillis
Lecturing to students during my time at McMaster University about the importance of engaging with their student union.

I went to university before Wynne's changes, and was considered low-income for all loan and grants purposes. I lived at home and commuted to school on public transit every day to minimize costs. Nonetheless, I graduated tens of thousands of dollars in debt. I am still paying back that debt, and will be for the next several years to come. Pursuing higher education should not be a debt sentence, and economic differences should not dictate education for a person in this province.

Ford is pricing working-class folks out of a better future, and he knows that. By cutting OSAP funding and regressing back to a loan-based structure, Premier Ford ensures that members of the working class always feel a lingering doubt about pursuing their ambitions.

What Ford is doing makes me angry, but it doesn't surprise me. Premier Ford has a narrative to sell. "Elitists" and entitled ivory-tower millennials are a ripe target. But his narrative is not grounded in reality. Equating low-income university students with Ontario's elite class is too rich. Such a narrative collapses under even the slightest of scrutiny.

Ford recently dismissed a group of students fighting for affordable education in this province as socialists in the making, and pinned it on their university education.

I want to be very clear: if some students today seem to believe in socialist principles, it most certainly isn't because they learned them in a university classroom. No, those principles are learned from the feeling of being beaten down every day and still never feeling like you're able to get ahead.

It's your family wondering how they'll pay rent and hydro. It's your mother telling the bus driver you're still eligible for the children's fare, even though you've aged out a long time ago. It's your family struggling to keep food on the dinner table, the meals your parents forego to ensure you eat. It's the field trips you can't go on because the money's not there.

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No, if those student protesters make "good socialists" one day, it's because believing in socialist principles is simply the most just and logical choice they could make in the face of having the odds stacked against them. They lived an experience they do not want other families to ever have to repeat.

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