Fifty thousand more students enroled this year in a program offering financial assistance and, in some cases, free tuition to post-secondary students, but the Ontario government admits it does not yet know how much that will ultimately cost taxpayers.
Deb Matthews, Deputy Premier and minister of Advanced Education and Skills Development met Tuesday morning with students, faculty and staff at the University of Guelph.
Matthews said the response so far to the overhauled Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) has been thrilling, with enrolment in the program increasing to 210,000 students in total — an increase of 50,000 applicants over last year.
“We knew there would be an increase — I think everybody is really excited at the extent of the increase,” she said.
There has been a marked increase, said Matthews, in enrolment from mature and Indigenous students.
“I hear personal stories of people who did not know the door to post-secondary (education) was open for them. They just didn’t know that, and now they do and they are taking advantage of it,” said Matthews.
The final bill for the increase in applicants, the free tuition for students from low-income families versus the savings to the government from the elimination of the tax rebates is still yet to be calculated and will be presented during the provincial government’s upcoming budget process.
Through the expanded program, students may receive their OSAP as a grant which does not have to be repaid or as a loan — or both.
“We don’t know whether the people are getting a small amount or a large amount — we just don’t have that yet,” said Matthews.
The cost for the expanded program is still being calculated, she said.
“We are just going to have to figure that out because it’s a promise we have made,” said Matthews.
The good news announcement comes as two high-profile court cases plague the Liberals — an Elections Act bribery trial in Sudbury, and the trial of two former Dalton McGuinty aides accused of wiping data regarding the cancellation of gas-fired power plants prior to the 2011 election.
Matthews said she is just reporting the change in policy and the effect it is having.
“I’m just doing my job. We made these announcements — we announced this two budgets ago. This is the first year it’s actually happening,” she said.
One of the cases involves an alleged bribery in Sudbury by the then-Ontario Liberal Party CEO and a local Liberal fundraiser. A second trial involves two former aides to Premier Dalton McGuinty who are alleged to have deleted hard drive data concerning the cancellation of gas-fired power plants prior to the 2011 election.
Ray Darling, University of Guelph registrar, said overall enrolment to the post-secondary institution has remained steady, but applications by students to OSAP has risen by 11 per cent.
Almost 5,000 students who are using OSAP this year are attending University of Guelph.
“The fact we have had an 11 per cent increase means either the advertising has worked and people know about it or we have more students who need to apply for OSAP. I think it’s the former,” said Darling.
So far the extended program has launched relatively hitch-free, said Darling, citing good support form the ministry.
“As a registrar’s office, we are asked to put these programs in place. I think it went quite well,” he said.
The program will be funded, in part, by the elimination of tax credits which were formerly offered at tax time. With the newly-expanded program, the government is favouring an up-front approach to providing funding for students’ education.
Asked about the overall cost of tuition, Matthews acknowledged the cost of a post-secondary education in Ontario is high.
“We are capping the increase in tuition but it still is high. We have made a deliberate choice to go with a high-tuition generous aid package so the support goes where it’s needed the most,” she said.
The government could have decided to lower tuition and decrease student aid, said Matthews, “but that actually benefits the higher income students the most.”