Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance 2014 budget released

The Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance (OUSA) recently released their budget for 2014. The new budget aims to improve financial assistance, expand co-op opportunities, and increase the amount of faculty members who focus on teaching in addition to research.

The 2014 budget, titled Envisioning a Fairer Society for Ontario’s Youth, advocates for $436.8 million in costs while generating $340 million by stopping new tuition and education tax credits and funneling these funds into financial assistance programs like OSAP and the 30 per cent off tuition grant. With the savings proposed, an additional $96.8 million will be needed to fund the proposed ideas that will be lobbied provincially.

Tuition tax credits are available for students who file taxes and can help in decreasing taxes owed. OUSA argues that tuition and education tax credits “primarily benefit high-income students” as these tax credits only reduce the amount of tax owing and students who do not earn much money would receive a smaller benefit than students who earn a high income. A 2011 OUSA survey found that “only one in three students earn enough income to make use of the tax credit.”

Adam Garcia, Feds vice-president education and OUSA vice-president administration, agrees that the tax credits are inefficient.

“[At] Waterloo, [it’s] obviously a little bit different. With co-op, there is a number of students that are working throughout the school year… One of the bigger concerns that we have is that with tax credits, you have to be making a fairly substantial income to actually benefit from them,” Garcia said. “The highest income bracket quartile of students and their families are actually… earning [back] almost four times… as much as lower income quartiles.”

However, students can choose to have their tuition tax credit apply to their parents’ taxes, allowing for a greater tax benefits for the family. OUSA argues that these tax benefits aren’t hitting the intended target demographic.

“Student financial assistance is meant to be a redistributive system where those who aren’t able to pay are getting more assistance, and tax credits aren’t really functioning this way,” Garcia said.

OUSA recommends cutting the $340 million the province is spending on tax credits, and instead increase funding financial assistance systems.

On the other hand, OUSA is advocating increasing the 30 per cent off Ontario Tuition Grant to 35 per cent as well as allowing Aboriginal students and students with dependents to have the grant for four years regardless of when they graduated from high school. Currently, the grant only covers students for four years after high school graduation in regular programs and five years in co-op programs. They predict increasing the tuition grant will cost $70 million and to extend Aboriginal students and students with dependents’ eligibility will run $19 million.

Matching the Ontario Student Loan assessment with the federal standards for parental contributions will run $40 million and lowering the debt cap for the Ontario Student Opportunity Grant has an estimated cost of $121 million. Increasing the monthly OSAP living allowance monthly by $250 also is expected to cost $90 million. In total, the financial assistance programs OUSA is proposing will cost $340 million — equal to the cost of tax credits.

Garcia believes a $250 monthly increase in OSAP living expenses will highly benefit UW students who are feeling the crunch. “We’re seeing the price of housing continue to go up, and I think that’s partially because of a lot of development that’s happening in Northdale,” he said.

The new complexes rising up in Northdale — the area bordered by Phillip Street to the west, King Street North to the east, Columbia Street West to the north, and University Avenue West to the south — charge premium rents with higher standards of housing and proximity to both UW and WLU.

For co-op, OUSA is planning to invest $100,000 in resources to inform employers of the “benefits of participating in work-integrated learning opportunities.” Alongside providing more resources, OUSA is pushing the provincial government to increase co-op placements by 10 per cent in the humanities, social sciences, or sciences at a cost of $70 million. Pushing universities to expand co-op placements in these fields also has an estimated price tag of $8.7 million.

“There definitely is a difference between programs and between faculties in terms of employment rates. Generally it’s applied health sciences that’s a bit lower than the others, sometimes science… environment [and] certain programs in engineering,” said Garcia. Garcia believes a push from the provincial government to potential employers to hire students in these fields would benefit UW students.

Ontario-wide, co-op positions are concentrated mainly in professional programs such as business administration and engineering, with less positions available in non-professional programs.

An estimated $18 million has been proposed to create 200 faculty positions that are focused on teaching, explaining: “OUSA’s definition of teaching-focused faculty is faculty that teach three full-course equivalents per year and spend about 60 per cent of their time on teaching, while maintaining 20 per cent of their time for research and 20 per cent for service to their community.”

A minimum of five faculties would go to each university, with larger universities getting proportionally more teaching-focused faculty. OUSA estimates that these teaching-focused faculty members would “teach almost double the number of courses as the average arts and humanities faculty member, and more than double the average course load of a science faculty member.”

By increasing teaching-focused faculty, OUSA believes it can shift the imbalance towards research at colleges and universities: “There are likely many instructors who would be interested in teaching more, should making this shift not have a negative impact on their career progression. Garcia extended this idea, saying “[We’ll] see professors who are great at teaching and love teaching, teach more.”

“[At] Waterloo, cost is an issue and quality is an issue… Waterloo students are talking about quality, and even Waterloo administration is talking about quality. So any initiative from the provincial government to say ‘We care about quality and we’re willing to invest in it’… I think is really meaningful for Waterloo students,” Garcia said.

Overall, Garcia is firm that OUSA is helping UW students in having their priorities heard by provincial government.

“The provincial government is setting all of the policies, all of the rules that UW is following. UW can’t increase tuition any more than the provincial government will allow them to. UW, when they want to create a new program, has to go to the provincial government for the rubber stamp [of]… approval. OSAP — one of the best student financial assistance programs in Canada — is offered by the provincial government. The provincial government is dictating a huge amount of what is affecting UW,” Garcia said.

Should the plans go through, major changes can be expected to the quality of life for most UW students. OUSA is currently lobbying the provincial government with this budget, the rest is up to Premiere Kathleen Wynne and her team.

OUSA is the lobbying powerhouse for undergraduate students enrolled at Queen’s University, Brock University, McMaster University, Trent University, the University of Western Ontario, Wilfrid Laurier University, and the University of Waterloo. By working with the provincial government, OUSA’s aims “to improve the accessibility, affordability, accountability, and quality of undergraduate education in Ontario.”