The Ontario Public Interest Research Group (OPIRG) at the University of Ottawa would like to draw attention to the impacts that recent changes announced by the provincial government will potentially have on its operations and the wider community.
Changes were announced along two broad lines. On one hand, cuts would be made to financial assistance for students to access post-secondary education. On the other hand, the service fees which provide funding to a wide variety of campus-based organizations and services, including OPIRG, would be put at risk.
OPIRG currently receives $4.05 per full-time undergraduate student, and $2.50 per full-time graduate student every semester. Students can opt out and get their fee reimbursed on a semester basis, with a period of two weeks offered every semester where students can come pick up their cheque. This has allowed students who disagree with one or more of OPIRG’s activities to take their contribution back. Historically, OPIRG has helped establish the university composting, recycling, campus and community gardens, campus bike co-op, pride centre, and more. Some of OPIRG’s current priorities include decolonization and climate action. We currently help fund initiatives such as student research placements, free vegetable-based meals on campus, and we support student-led environmental and social justice projects, and much more!
The changes announced by the provincial government under the so-called “Student Choice Initiative” would introduce online opt-in at the beginning of each semester, leaving campus-based organizations and services like OPIRG with little opportunity to make themselves and the importance of their services known. This could lead to an unpredictable and drastically-reduced budget, challenging the continuation of our operations. These impacts would also be felt by other campus organizations relying on the same type of funding, such as the student newspapers, the community radio, as well as the student federations themselves and all the clubs and service centers they fund.
The announced change would leave it up to each institution, such as the University of Ottawa, to decide which service fees are essential and which ones can be made disposable. In effect, this subjects organizations that advocate for students and other marginalized groups to the good will of the university administration. It is the students themselves who ought to identify the essential services, and we have been doing this through student referendums. The announced changes would take away what our students have built for each other.
Further to these changes, the provincial government would also significantly reduce financial assistance to students. Among other things, it would turn a good proportion of OSAP grants into loans, while removing the limited free tuition accessible to poor students, and taking away the six-month interest-free grace period after graduation. While the government had been careful to precede this announcement with an earlier announcement of a 10% tuition fee cut across the board, it’s clear that the overall balance would be negative for students and make post-secondary education more expensive, and inaccessible.
It is clear to us that this reform package was very strategically put together. While the government is severely undermining the social conditions of present and future students, it is also undermining their capacity to organize and fight back against those changes, by weakening campus organizations which have been set up historically to promote justice and accessibility. Since our inception at uOttawa in 1978, OPIRG has supported hundreds of initiatives on and off campus to make the world we live in better and more just. What we are witnessing now is an attack on our organization and community, with the intent to shut us down and smash any resistance to the incoming rolling back of social services and the safety net.