The recent Ontario Auditor General’s Report on the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) should concern Ontarians. In its analysis, it misrepresents the value OSAP provides to students and families and draws premature and inaccurate conclusions based on incomplete data. Most alarmingly, it dramatically oversteps the expectations of the Auditor General’s office by making recommendations seemingly intended to pave the way for government cuts to student assistance for low-income families.
In response, Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations President Gyllian Phillips wrote a letter to the Auditor General detailing why the report on OSAP is both inaccurate and irresponsible.
The grants that OSAP provides help tens of thousands of Ontario students attend university and college without taking on unreasonable student debt that will weigh them down for decades. Programs like OSAP operate as both financial assistance and as long-term policy levers to shift the perceptions and expectations of low-income families.
The fear of taking on more debt is a well-documented barrier for those considering a postsecondary education and any analysis based on only a single year of data (as is the case with the Auditor General’s Report) could not possibly measure the effectiveness of the program.
Contrary to the Auditor General’s flawed claims, there is ample evidence to suggest that, in the long term, increasing the amount and availability of non-repayable grants are the best means to remove the financial barriers faced by students wishing to pursue a postsecondary education.
Further, the Auditor General glosses over one of the defining equity policy goals of the program: to reduce the debt of those students forced to borrow money to afford a postsecondary education. As the previous government came to understand, the high levels of student debt being taken on by low-income students is an equity issue government must address.
The criticism that only two per cent more students are attending university or college because of the new grants programs is also misleading. If the stated goal of OSAP is to increase access for low-income students, properly measuring the effectiveness of this initiative would require dis-aggregated data that demonstrates if the proportion of low-income students has increased. The Auditor General does not have the data to make that case.
In fact, the higher than anticipated uptake for the program signals the opposite. If one were auditing the program based on whether it was achieving its stated policy goals, surely increased uptake would be a positive outcome. Since the program is income tested, it should be inferred that the 25 per cent increase in uptake is, in fact, from families who would otherwise be incurring high levels of debt.
The new grants program was specifically designed to address the fact that Ontario has been a national laggard when it comes to non-repayable student financial assistance. A significant portion of the funding for these new grants was reallocated from existing ineffective financial assistance programs and tax credits. In effect, less money is being wasted on red tape, and more money is being invested in making university and college a reality for thousands of students. That the demand for the program has exceeded expectations demonstrates the real financial struggles Ontarians face paying for a postsecondary education.
Tuition fees in Ontario are the highest in Canada and continue to increase year after year. Each time the provincial government allows tuition fees to rise, they increase the financial burden of pursuing a postsecondary education and create more demand for student financial assistance through OSAP.
The recommendations made in the report on OSAP extend beyond the jurisdiction of the Auditor General’s office, the mandate of which is to conduct audits and value-for-dollar analyses of government programs. As a result, this report veers heavily into policy analysis and encroaches on a public policy debate best left to elected representatives, academic and policy experts, and the communities impacted.
Given the flawed data and inappropriate recommendations, this report represents an ill-informed political pronouncement rather than an expert opinion rooted in the principles of value-for-dollar auditing.
Due to its historic independence and vigilant accounting, the office of the Auditor General has garnered a great deal of respect, influence, and trust. This latest example of the Auditor General blurring the lines and expanding her mandate into areas outside her jurisdiction undermines this trust and distorts an important policy discussion.