Ontario NDP Launch New Website to End Student Debt

The Liberal government’s plan to offer “free” tuition isn’t free – and it isn’t enough to help post-secondary students already saddled with debt, Andrea Horwath says.

“It’s a tougher job market in Ontario than it used to be and student debt can feel like an anchor for young people now, leaving them stuck back in their parents’ houses or in dead-end jobs struggling to repay student loans,” the Ontario NDP leader said Monday at Queen’s Park.

Horwath was at the legislature (on a constitiency week, no less) to mark the launch of a new website that asks students to tell the NDP about their struggles with debt. The NDP leader also reiterated her pledge to take the interest off Ontario student loans if her New Democrats form government in 2018, which would cost about $25 million annually, she added.

The proposal appears to have a good deal of support and could help the NDP attract more young voters. A recent Forum Research survey suggested nearly two-thirds of Ontarians are in favour of interest-free student loans, but the NDP received only 21 per cent support in a new Mainstreet/Postmedia poll, putting them just ahead of the Liberals, yet well behind the Tories.

Furthermore, debt was a sore subject for the hundreds of students who flocked to Queen’s Park last week to protest the cost of tuition. Sticking up for indebted students also drew legions of young voters to U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, which fell short.

“I think people, as we get closer to an election, will start to decide more clearly where their support is going to go,” said Horwath. “But I can say I don’t believe that (PC Leader) Patrick Brown and the conservatives are the answer. They are privatizers. They are people that cut public services. That’s in the DNA of the conservatives.”

Horwath was flanked Monday by young Ontarians holding up signs that purportedly showed exactly how costly their student loans were. One of those people standing with Horwath, Ahmad Moussaoui, launched an online petition that called for students from “qualifying low-income families” to have their Ontario student loans forgiven, or at least be spared from making interest payments. It had garnered nearly 63,000 signatures as of Monday evening.

Moussaoui said he graduated from St. Clair College in Windsor, Ont., with a marketing diploma, incurred a lot of debt and then found there were no jobs in his field.

“I do remember when the Liberals announced the free tuition,” Moussaoui told reporters at Queen’s Park. “I was driving home from work and my friend told me about it. And I was in a state of confusion. On the one hand, I was so happy about the next generation of students that get to benefit from this, but on the other hand, it leaves the rest of us to kind of fend for ourselves.”

Ontario’s Liberal government announced in its 2016 budget that it would fold several assistance programs into a single grant that would cover the average cost of tuition for students who hail from families with incomes of $50,000 or less. The budget said most, but not all, of post-secondary students from that income bracket would get grants greater than their average tuition cost.

But Horwath said the Liberals’ plan isn’t enough. “They rolled out this not-free tuition program and it’s not the panacea that they claim that it is, and these folks can verify that as well,” she said.

Horwath also noted students have other costs, such as rent and books, which are adding to their debt load. The NDP say that, since 2009, Ontario has had the highest undergraduate and tuition fees in Canada. A four-year undergrad degree is costing students an average of $28,000 in debt, the party says, which increases to $35,000 if there’s post-grad work involved.

Advanced Education and Skills Development Minister Deb Matthews fired back in a statement that the government is projecting that more than 150,000 students will have their tuition costs covered by the new grant system, which starts next year. The minister also said Ontario students graduate with only the third-lowest average student debt because of the government’s help.

“We are moving forward with one of the most ambitious reforms of student assistance in North America and removing the financial barrier to postsecondary education,” said Matthews. “Something that Andrea Horwath and the NDP voted against.”

Matthews also offered a reminder that Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) loans are interest-free for students while they’re in school and for six months after they graduate. There is also a assistance plan that the government has rejigged so that repayments won’t have to be made until a student is making at least $25,000 a year.

Taking the interest off student loans is only the “first step” to solving a student debt crisis, Horwath said. The NDP is currently crafting its platform for the 2018 provincial election, but Horwath pointed out that the party had vowed to freeze tuition costs.

The current cap on tuition fees is slated to expire next year, she added.

“We’re pretty worried about (the government’s) silence on that issue,” Horwath said.