“It stinks”: How Ontario students greeted the introduction of OSAP

In 1966, the government unveiled what would become the Ontario Student Assistance Program. It didn’t take long for the protests to begin
By Jamie Bradburn - Published on January 24, 2019
an archival ad for education grants titled "Run, don't walk"
An ad that appeared in the December 18, 1968, issue of the Varsity, the University of Toronto’s student newspaper.

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Long before the Ontario Student Assistance Program was established in the late 1960s, people recognized that post-secondary students often required financial help to pursue their studies. “The young go-getter who worked his own way through college has become a rarity,” the Toronto Star observed in 1953. “The high cost of higher education is to blame. The earning potential of the untrained college student has not kept pace with the rise in education costs. Increased parental and outside assistance is required today if a degree is to be obtained.”

OSAP grew out of the Canada Student Loan Plan, which had been introduced by the federal government in 1964 and itself replaced an earlier program that had provided some limited assistance. The CSLP, which worked in conjunction with existing provincial systems of bursaries, small loans, and scholarships, had offered loans of up to $1,000 per year and a maximum of $5,000 over a student’s academic career. Interest wasn’t charged until six months after graduation, and they had 10 years to repay. If the student died before the loan could be repaid, the federal government assumed their debt.

The plan drew plenty of criticism. The Canadian Union of Students questioned the constitutionality of the program, as education was a provincial matter. The union was also disappointed that CSLP offered loans rather than grants and that it charged interest. A brief prepared by the University of Toronto’s Students’ Administrative Council and sent to the Royal Commission on the Financing of Higher Education stated that the plan forced students to “mortgage their future in order to build a valuable asset to sell on the job market.”

Federal finance minister Walter Gordon faced a testy audience when he participated in a debate — resolution: “The Canada Student Loan Plan Is Ill-Conceived, Inadequate, and Unconstitutional” — ­at U of T in October 1964. Numerous attendees, including the Star’s education writer, called for free post-secondary education: Gordon supported the idea, but said it was a provincial matter. Many questioned the advisability of forcing students into debt. After facing jeers from the crowd, Gordon suggested that those who didn’t like CSLP “just leave it alone and don’t take advantage of the plan.” The room voted in favour of the resolution 77 to 71.

Stories circulated in the media and in federal and provincial legislatures that students were spending their CLSP loan money on European vacations, furs, and sports cars or investing it to make more money. Whether the rumours were true or not, in the fall of 1965, the province implemented a means test: parents had to guarantee the loans and declare under oath that the information they provided about their finances was correct. If parents refused to support the applicant, they had to sign another form indicating that their child was financially independent. Student-aid officers were pleased, but student leaders worried that the changes would harm students who were estranged from their families and couldn’t pay their way through school.

On April 4, 1966, Bill Davis, then Ontario’s minister of university affairs, introduced the Province of Ontario Student Award Program, which made a total of $5.7 million in funding available to students enrolled in post-secondary institutions. The first $150 of each student’s funding would be covered by CSLP; the remainder would come through provincial grants and federal loans. Students applied by providing information about the expenses involved in a year’s study (including residence and tuition) and their current financial resources.

Like the CSLP before it, POSAP was not warmly received. A Toronto Star editorial lamented that students could not receive bursaries or provincial scholarships while applying for a loan and that “60 per cent of the Ontario student’s public financial assistance must be in the form of banking loans.” Students were angry that the POSAP process included a questionnaire about their parents’ finances. “The new means test is so severe,” Ronald Shepherd, the registrar of U of T’s University College, told the Star, “that in comparison it makes an income tax form appear to be a very innocuous simple form.” The University of Waterloo was forced to withdraw more than 400 admission scholarships when the province told it that it must stop competing with POSAP.

Administrative, faculty, and student organizations prepared a report that was distributed in the provincial legislature in June 1966. “Loans are a deterrent rather than an incentive for students in the lower income groups,” it read. “As the plan now stands, the students whose parents are comfortably off and who can win a merit scholarship can keep the whole amount, whereas the economically disadvantaged student who wins a scholarship and needs still more assistance loses the benefit of his scholarship and is forced into debt.” The statement also noted that heavy reliance on loans might steer students away from graduate studies and fields with heavy course loads, such as medicine.

Anger grew when registrars and students tried to file POSAP claims in September 1966. Loans that had previously taken an hour to arrange now took up to six weeks. Registrars at U of T discovered that no applications could be accepted until students were enrolled, but that students couldn’t enroll until their fees were paid. They tried to work around it, offering interest-free loans that could be repaid after POSAP arrived and getting proof from the province that money was on its way.

An editorial in the Queen’s Journal summed up the attitude toward POSAP on campuses across the province: “It stinks.”

On September 29, 1966, roughly 2,000 U of T students marched from Hart House to Queen’s Park, where they were met by Davis. SAC president Tom Faulkner handed him a four-point resolution calling for POSAP to distribute aid solely on the basis of financial need, increase the proportion of bursaries, simplify the means test, and allow student-aid officers to adjust individual payouts. Davis promised to set up a special committee to review POSAP and allow student-aid officers to consider appeals. He was greeted with heckles: “Why don’t you stop talking and say something?” The following week, nearly 1,000 students from Ryerson Polytechnical Institute marched to Queen’s Park singing “We Shall Overcome” and carrying signs that called Davis such things as fat, a fink, and “out to lunch.” They were disappointed when the deputy minister showed up instead of Davis. In Ottawa, more than 1,000 students marched past Parliament Hill in late October, cheering when federal deputy NDP leader David Lewis called POSAP “scandalous on all counts.”

The protests paid off when, in March 1967, the province changed the process. The new forms, sent to student leaders for feedback, removed questions about parental debts, insurance policies, and mortgages. The funding formula was amended so that students could receive some bursaries and grants from other sources without seeing their POSAP grants reduced. Allowances were increased for married students, and students were considered independent of family financial assistance after completing three years of studies.

Over time, the “P” faded away, and OSAP’s official title became the Ontario Student Assistance Plan.  One of the most enduring features of the program — delaying interest payment until six months after graduation — appears also to be on its way out, as Doug Ford’s Tories launch their own redesign of education funding. The protests have already begun.

Sources: Canadian Journal of Higher Education, Volume 31, Number 1 (2001); the July 16, 1964, October 23, 1964, April 5, 1966, June 17, 1966, August 6, 1966, September 29, 1966, February 25, 1967, and March 23, 1967, editions of the Globe and Mail; the September 29, 1966, edition of the Queen’s Journal; the October 19, 1953, July 30, 1965, April 6, 1966, October 5, 1966, and October 27, 1966, editions of the Toronto Star; and the September 25, 1964, October 23, 1964, September 21, 1966, September 30, 1966, and March 8, 1967, editions of the Varsity.

Jamie Bradburn is a Toronto-based writer/researcher specializing in historical and contemporary civic matters.

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