Money Matters
By Tory Maas

In my four years as a student here, it’s become increasingly obvious that OCAD U students aren’t okay for money. Financial struggles can be incredibly isolating. They can be embarrassing to talk about. They can be minimized, ignored, and improvised away...until they can’t.

I knew, from my own experience and through conversations with other students that it’s not uncommon for students to make choices between living costs and materials costs. I knew from my time working at the Student Union that many students are struggling with the basics, using the Student Pantry in the Student Union office to help supplement their grocery budgets. Through my involvement in student politics via the Canadian Federation of Students, I came to learn that students in Ontario are facing a crisis. Our tuition rates are the highest in Canada, and they are going nowhere but up.

Not in OCAD’s Interest

In early spring 2016, the university administration came to the Student Union to discuss making a change from a flat late fee on overdue student accounts to an interest-based model. This conversation happened about a week before the decision was brought to OCAD University’s Board of Governors -- the body that makes financial decisions on behalf of the institution. The Student Union quickly developed a campaign in response to the proposal. The campaign, called “Not in OCAD’s Interest” immediately picked up a great deal of momentum, and a petition in opposition to the interest-based model quickly saw nearly 1000 signatures and testimonials from students, alumni, and allies connected to the OCAD community. The SU pushed administrators to think more holistically about the effects an interest-based model would have on students who were already struggling to pay the bills. They asked how financial difficulty affects students

from different demographics; queer and trans students, students of colour, and international students, for example, may have different relationships to their finances and the SU wanted to know as much as possible about its members -- all OCAD U students -- in order to best advocate for them. The response was that the university doesn’t track those numbers.

At this Board of Governor’s meeting, the University was not prepared to answer questions or respond to demands for an opt-in, interest-exempt payment plan and an educational campaign to inform students about their options. The ultimate decision to move forward on the interest-based model was tabled until the May 2016 Board of Governor’s meeting, which fell after the end of Winter term when many students were no longer on campus.

While the decision to test an interest-based model for the 2016/17 academic year was ultimately passed at the May meeting, the SU made it clear that they would hold the university accountable to their commitments to increased communication from the Financial Aid & Awards and Finance offices (two separate things!) and to an opt-in payment plan for students who need to pay for their tuition as they study.

Money Matters

Due to last year’s emergency campaign, a main focus for the Student Union team this academic year has been gaining a better understanding of the financial issues facing students. The SU decided to build on the momentum from “Not in OCAD’s Interest” and evolve the campaign into a survey called “Money Matters” -- a straightforward way for the Student Union to collect the information about its members that the university lacks, so that they could meet the Board of Governors prepared with a complete and accurate snapshot of what OCAD students experience day-to- day. In the Academic Plan that was passed, unanimously, at Senate (the governing body of the university that handles all major academic decisions) in January 2017, students’ wellness and resilience were identified as a priorities for the university. We -- the Student Union -- found it disheartening that an institution that prioritizes student wellness and resiliency is not responding to the dire financial realities of its students, many of whom have indicated that financial struggles directly and negatively impact their mental health.

Requests for the payment plan and info campaign did not materialize as promised, and through constant back-and- forth with Deanne Fisher (Vice-Provost Students & International), Andre De Freitas (Manager, Financial Aid & Awards), and Gary Cheong (Controller, Finance) the SU made it known that students were still being kept in the dark about their ability to manage their outstanding fees to the university. This process is still ongoing, and many of our concerns centre around access: students aren’t being made aware that they have options, and communication to students who have asked for alternative payment methods have had (and continue to have) inconsistent messaging about their accounts and how to pay them.

When asked, "how has the recent change away from a flat $50 late fee to an interest based fee affected you?” 1.9% reported a positive impact while 21.7% reported a negative impact (76.4% replied not applicable or left the question blank).

Tuition & Ancillary Fees

The average Ontario student, who pays domestic tuition fees, will owe public and private debt of $37,000 for a four year university education.

There will be a tuition increase of 3% for domestic students (the maximum allowable increase by law) presented at the March 6, 2017 Board of Governors meeting on Monday March 6th. The Student Union have urged the university to find alternative revenue streams, rather than downloading the bulk of their operating costs onto the shoulders of students. OCAD U’s current approach to students’ financial realities does not mesh with the resounding feedback received from students that say their mental health is directly, negatively impacted by their finances.

Internationalization is another facet of the Academic Plan that has been prioritized. However, International students already pay tuition that is more than double that of domestic students with no limit on how much the university can increase tuition for international students year-to- year (that 3% cap on domestic tuition increases? Doesn’t apply to International students). With the university prioritizing recruitment in international markets, we worry that the students who come here are not being met with the necessary resources to succeed. This is incongruous with the priorities of the Academic Plan and the aspirations of the university.

The average domestic full time undergraduate student taking 5 credits over 2016/17 is paying $6160.00. A 3% increase for the 2017/18 year would be an additional $184.80

The average international full time undergraduate student taking 5 credits over 2016/17 is paying $19,335.00. A 3% increase for the 2017/18 year would be an additional $580.05.

Money Talks (& so can you)

61.6% of respondents replied that their grades had suffered because of financial difficulties. The responses to the Money Matters survey made it clear that financial issues are deeply impacting students’ stress levels and ability to fully participate in the university experience. When the SU began to compile the nearly 500 responses we knew anecdotally, and from our own experiences as current students, that things were not good. Seeing the numbers and testimonials from hundreds of fellow students was eye-opening. Now, it’s time to talk.

With the information gained from the Money Matters Survey, the Student Union will hold the University accountable to its promises, goals, and aspirations, and the Student Union will encourage the university to think about students as whole, intersectional, and living beings whose stresses and uncertainties about money affect their coursework, their jobs, their relationships, and their ability to succeed as members of the OCAD U community.

My time as a student at OCAD U is coming to an end this year. When I came here four years ago, I was a full time worker in corporate retail and a part-time student already carrying over $20,000 of debt from a previous degree, and with a lot of big-girl bills to pay (like rent, internet, phone, and food). I came to OCAD because although my full time job came with perks and benefits, I knew I didn’t want to spend the rest of my career wearing a blue t-shirt with a picture of a fruit on it at the mall. I knew that going back to school with a five-digit debt load was a risk, and I had no choice but for that risk to pay off. I’m still not sure where I’ll end up after graduation, but I know that I am solidly in the category of nearly 60% of students that feel only somewhat confident that the skills I’m acquiring with my degree will open up financial opportunities after I graduate.

Tori Maas is a fourth-year student in the Criticism & Curatorial Practice program in the Faculty of Art, and the 2016/2017 Executive Director of Academic Affairs at the OCAD Student Union. She can be reached at academic@ocadsu.org.

Here are some ways to get involved and take further action:

Attend President Diamond's office hours, which occur roughly once per month, or email her at sdiamond@ocadu.ca.

Join the Student Union! As a student enrolled in at least one course (0.5 credits), you are automatically a member of the Union. Our Executive team, Board of Directors, student representatives, and staff work together to build and continue campaigns like this.

Contact campaigns@ocadsu.org for questions about Money Matters, or manager@ocadsu.org if you have other questions about how to get involved with the SU as a rep, volunteer, or a staff member.

Follow the SU on Twitter or Instagram at @ocadsu, or on Facebook at facebook.com/ocadsu for updates. You can also talk to us IRL.

Our office is located on the 6th floor of 230 Richmond and is open 9:30-4:30, Monday to Friday.