Textbook and travel grants: the good, the bad and the failed - Macleans.ca

Textbook and travel grants: the good, the bad and the failed

Recent flip-flop by McGuinty government improves policy but could hurt party’s political image

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Last Friday (as governments always release bad news on a Friday), the Ontario government announced the cancellation of planned improvements to student financial aid and said they would be scaling back the aid that is currently available. According to the province, the cuts are expected to save $103 million.

It is no secret that I thought the Textbook and Technology Grant was poor public policy and a political gimmick.

It was an election promise designed to maximize positive publicity for the government. The premise was simple: every full-time public post-secondary student attending an Ontario institution would receive a cheque from the government.

It sounded simple enough, so how hard could it be to implement? Get a list of students from each college and university, print a bunch of cheques, send them to Canada Post, and, voila!, every student in the province would get a cheque telling them how much Dalton McGuinty loves them.

Implementation wasn’t that easy, and the system seemed as if it had been designed to frustrate potential applicants.

The government decided there would be a web-based application that every student would use to get the grant. The government, perhaps as an indication of how little money they had to fulfill their election promises, did not engage in much promotion of the program. This resulted in many students not applying for the grant.

To add insult to injury, the government paid colleges and universities in order to provide student lists.

That said, it seems as if the government didn’t mind. After all, it didn’t matter that the grant was poor public policy; it was good politics. Premier Dalton McGuinty could go around the province saying he had “put into place brand new textbook and technology and distance grants…the first of its kind in the country.”

These cutbacks have made the grant a political weak spot for the government. The grants can now be called a broken election promise, which is a criticism to which McGuinty is vulnerable.

However, Friday’s announcement does improve the public policy aspect of these grants.

No longer will these grants go to individuals without any assessed financial need (which, in the overwhelming of incidences, correlates with a lack of financial need). This means money is no longer being directed to “student support,” which does nothing to actually support engagement in post-secondary education. For a student without financial need, the decision to continue in a post-secondary program will not be based on the cost of that education.

There is no longer a need for a costly administration process, as every student receiving OSAP will now automatically get the grant.

While not the best public policy, the new structure of the grant is definitely an improvement. True, there are more effective ways of delivering aid and the grant could be more targeted, but overall, the structure of the grant is better.

The fact the government is freezing the amount of the grant is disappointing. The government could have shown leadership and a true commitment to helping students in need, especially during this time of recession, by diverting funds to those with higher need instead of just cutting benefits to those students with low or no need.