Lessons from the rise and fall of the Liberals’ free OSAP policy

OPINION: A digital-media “case study” chronicles the creation, implementation, and destruction of the Liberal promise of free tuition in Ontario. What lessons does it have for COVID-19?
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Oct 05, 2020
The Kathleen Wynne government introduced major changes to OSAP in 2016. (iStock/RandyRomano)

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Free tuition for Ontario university and college students was one of the high-water marks of Kathleen Wynne’s tenure as premier, and Liberals are understandably proud of the accomplishment — and still distraught over how quickly it was jettisoned by the Doug Ford government after the 2018 election. A digital “public-affairs case study” from Ryerson University’s Leadership Lab and other digital media partners explores how the stars aligned to create the major change to OSAP in 2016, and it’s a worthwhile exploration of how major policy changes happen in provincial politics, complete with mention of key ministers needing to take meetings in the Queen’s Park cafeteria so they won’t miss any votes.

Some of the lessons of this saga go beyond the specifics of post-secondary education and how to finance it for students. They apply to policy and politics more broadly and might prove useful to keep in mind as we continue to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.

For starters: no movement succeeds without fanatics. Before Liberals choke on their coffee, I mean this as a gentler version of Winston Churchill’s formulation — a fanatic is someone who won’t change their mind and won’t change the subject. Free OSAP wouldn’t have happened without an army of student activists who’d spent a decade or so agitating for lower tuitions both in Ontario and across Canada.

It’s easy to dismiss lobbying as a greasy, greedy enterprise — and it often is! — but, at its best, it involves advocates bringing their perspectives and their expertise to MPPs who have neither the time nor the energy to know every possible angle of every issue in their domain. The people who do have both the time and energy to do this, especially when the pay is terrible are … well, fanatics. (Is “obsessives” better?) You see this everywhere, and not just on the level of provincial or federal policy. Go to your town council meeting, held maybe in some unused hockey arena far from any of Ontario’s biggest cities, and you’ll find that some citizen has put the work in to educate themselves about some grievance and has firm views about how they want council to fix it.

These are the people who make policy change, and, in the case of free tuition, they’d been working for years before they got their wish through the Wynne government. And that’s the second ingredient for this kind of major change: having the right people in positions of power when the moment comes.

The student activists had a powerful argument on their side. Existing financial supports for university and college students were already large, and they were inefficient (and unfairly distributed). Simplifying the distribution of the same pot of cash would allow the government to better target that aid to the people who needed it most. But plenty of policy ideas supported by good arguments don’t make it through the eye of the needle and end up actually being implemented.

The difference between success and failure, in this case, was people: when Wynne replaced Dalton McGuinty in 2013, she brought a much more activist view of government with her. She appointed her close political ally Deb Matthews as Treasury Board president, meaning that Matthews had a key role managing the government’s finances. A meeting between tuition activists and Matthews started the ball rolling.

But that still wasn’t enough, because the machinery of government has a life of its own, and sometimes it resists government policy, even if inadvertently. So despite having a premier and a cabinet pushing hard for this change, Matthews had to explode at some hapless bureaucrats at the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Colleges and Universities in order to get them to actually work together and sort out one pot of money (tax credits) from another (OSAP loans). In every government, some ministers have reputations for being loud and abusive to staff — and that’s regrettable — but, in this case, Matthews was using anger strategically to get bureaucracy to accomplish the elected government’s goals.

Finally, there’s the need to work with what you’ve got — and the promise and perils that brings. The Liberals got lucky with their OSAP reforms in part because of a not-entirely-evidence-based policy introduced by McGuinty in the 2011 election: a 30 per cent tax credit for all tuition costs. Enormously expensive and not particularly well targeted to families in need, the policy forced the government to make substantial upgrades to the IT system that made OSAP work. Those upgrades had been completed just in time for McGuinty’s successor to change course once again — but, now, the more modern and flexible IT backend could handle it. There were no healthcare.gov-style collapses when students started applying for their free tuition.

Then, of course, the 2018 election happened, and, in the 2019 budget, the Ford government scrapped the Wynne-era free-tuition program. Ford now finds himself dealing with a crisis unlike any the province has seen in generations, but the basic lessons of policy formation still apply, despite the change in parties.

Like Wynne, Ford is both enabled and constrained by what he’s entered the pandemic with. Ontario’s public-health system wasn’t perfectly prepared for a pandemic before he took office — the Liberals had underfunded it for years before the 2018 election and allowed a stockpile of N95 respirators to expire — but his choices in the 2019 budget didn’t help matters either: further austerity and administrative chaos led to the departures of several key members of Public Health Ontario’s leadership. The Tories have been scrambling ever since both because of their own choices and because of ones they inherited.

Which is another way of saying that the people in charge still matter. There’s no such thing as purely evidence-based policy-making; the process can’t help but be shaped by the people at the top. That was great for undergraduates when it was Wynne and Matthews at the tiller of the ship of state, but Ford and Christine Elliott could only ever be a very different pair of leaders. Their response to the pandemic could only ever reflect the kind of politicians they are. The game of “what if” will never be conclusively answered, but I don’t think, for example, that even the Progressive Conservatives would deny that Wynne would have implemented a very different return-to-school plan than the one the Tories settled on.

The pandemic has even given us an example of the strategic use of anger against bureaucrats who weren’t getting the message: early on in the pandemic, the premier spent several days berating the province’s public-health leadership, in news conferences and in the legislature itself, for not getting Ontario’s testing numbers up. It’s not exactly an episode of The West Wing, but this, too, is governance of a sort.

And what about the world after the pandemic? That will be when our lovable fanatics come back into the picture. Will we get a federally guaranteed universal basic income? Public pharmacare? Massive new investments in green energy? Or, on the conservative side of things, a financial retrenchment and deregulatory big bang justified by the need to re-start the economy after the shutdowns of the pandemic?

The answer will depend on which specific band of obsessives prevails.

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