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Student voters in Ontario look for tuition, mental health help


Lily Eskin has a lot to look forward to. Just wrapping up her undergrad at McMaster University, she has already been accepted into the school's Masters of Political Science program, secured a scholarship and a job as a teaching assistant.

But Eskin is over $30,000 in debt from a bank loan she had to take out to pay for her undergraduate studies.

"I just know it's going to take me a while to repay that, because I'm uncertain how much money I'm going to make," she said.

One of the most pressing concerns for college and university students, as the election nears, is the cost of tuition, say Eskin and others.

Hundreds of thousands of students in financial need get tuition money though the Ontario Student Assistance Program each year. In 2017, the Liberals increased the number of grants, which unlike loans do not have to be paid back, awarded to OSAP-eligible students, and made it possible for students with the greatest financial need to attend college or university free of cost.

Around 357,000 students received financial support in the 2016-17 academic year, the Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development said. In 2017-18, the number of students aided by OSAP rose to 435,000 students — over 235,000 of whom had their tuition covered entirely by grants.

But whether you receive loans or grants and how much you get is based on several factors including your expenses and your family's income. Eskin, who comes from a middle-class family, says she is caught in a gap.

"I couldn't get OSAP because my dad makes over the cut-off (amount) but at the same time he doesn't have the luxury of dropping however much tuition is plus residence costs," Eskin said.

The Liberals have established rules to ease the burden of student loan repayment. OSAP loans are interest free for as long as the recipient is enrolled as a student, and you do not have to repay the government until you make at least $25,000 per year — due to be raised to $35,000 per year this fall.

But around 124,000 Ontario students left college or university with government student loan debt in 2016-2017, and their average student debt load was $17,700 each, the Ministry of Advanced Education said. The provincial government does not track how many students seek loans from banks or other private sources.

Ontario's NDP has pledged that every student who qualifies for OSAP will be given a grant, as opposed to a loan. The party's platform also includes a promise to "retroactively forgive all interest for everyone carrying provincial student loan."

Ontario PC Leader Doug Ford has not publicly discussed plans for addressing tuition. When asked last month for details on aspects of the party platform that would help post-secondary students, PC spokesman Simon Jeffries said the party would roll out its platform "in the coming weeks."

The high cost of tuition is compounded by uncertain job prospects, as university graduates struggle to find permanent employment.

"I know people in economics, engineering, mathematics and the like and we're all facing a pretty grim future of highly indebted, insecure and low-wage work," said Mitchell Thompson, a fourth-year journalism student at Ryerson University.

"I think most of us realize we're going to be working harder than our parents, with less security and for less pay for the rest of our lives and want that to not be the case, generally."

The lack of employment opportunities creates a cycle of debt, said Laurentian University political science student Lora Wahamaa.

"Students … pursue further education (after undergrad), hoping it will help them find employment, which leads them to more debt," she said.

The NDP promised in their platform to create 27,000 co-op positions, paid internships and other opportunities for students to incorporate work into their education.

Students are also concerned with their physical and mental well-being while they're on campus.

The Liberals mandated that, as of Jan. 1, 2017, all colleges and universities in Ontario have their own sexual violence policies in place, laying out rules and frameworks for receiving and investigating complaints and handing down discipline.

But the next government — whether it is Liberal or not — must further refine those policies, said Jade Cooligan Pang, a political science and human rights student at Carleton University.

"The way that it is right now there are a lot of gaps (in policies) and it's just not acceptable," said Cooligan Pang, an organizer of Our Turn, a Canada-wide organization that works to prevent sexual violence on campus.

The Liberals launched "It's Never Okay," a strategy to address gender-based violence in 2015. In their 2018 budget, Premier Kathleen Wynne's party pledged $242 million over three years to fund supports for survivors, early intervention programs and improving the response of the justice system to sexual violence.

The NDP says it will "improve accountability for campus sexual assault policies and make information collected from the campus climate survey available through open data." 

For Dmytro Basmat, there is a pressing need for more mental health resources on campus.

"This is not a partisan issue, it's one that can save lives," said Basmat, who is a politics and governance student at Ryerson University.

A close friend of his died by suicide in February, he said.

OHIP covers the services of most psychiatrists and some psychologists, but wait times for publicly funded therapy can be several months long.

The Liberals's recent OHIP+ initiative, making prescriptions free for Ontarians under the age of 25, will help college and university students afford psychiatric medication. But, Basmat said, the government should cover or supplement other mental health treatments, like therapy, through the program too.

The Liberals committed in their 2017 budget to boost annual funding for college and university mental health services by $6 million per year "to support the development and/or expansion of mental health services on campus."

The NDP has pledged to establish a new Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions and hire 2,200 new mental health care workers. The Progressive Conservatives would spend $1.9 billion over ten years on mental health support.

Peter Goffin, The Canadian Press

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