By: Ally Buchanan
“Education for all” has existed as a policy goal and buzzword for years. Increasing education in a population, especially historically excluded groups, provides social mobility, improved labour forces, and increased diversity in academia. However, universities and colleges as they currently exist are not built for “all,” and neither are the priorities of provincial education policies. The institutions themselves present a number of barriers in their history and design, with BIPOC students, disabled students, LGBTQ students, and first-generation students facing additional obstacles. “Education for all” policies must go beyond mere access to post-secondary education and instead focus on providing support so students can thrive in their education.
The current model of universal education policy focuses on financial programs, ignoring the supports that address many of the true barriers to education access: student services. Provided at the university level, student services such as accessibility centers, health services, and mental health supports are associated with increases in student satisfaction, retention, and completion of programs. These supports work to decrease dropout rates and increase diversity in the student body. However, these services see very little regulation, and are typically overlooked in matters of funding in favour of financial relief programs.
The Ontario Ministry of Colleges and Universities, which is responsible for the regulation of Ontario’s public and private post-secondary institutions, currently enforces nine pieces of legislation. All of these are concerned with financial supports and delivery of educational programming; none mention student services, accessibility, or inclusion. Additionally, the Ministry does not monitor the graduation rates of funding recipients. This makes it difficult to track education outcomes stemming from financial aid.
The Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) is the most prominent program offered by the department, which, at the time of last assessment in 2018, delivered $1.7 billion to 441,000 students, 98% in the form of non-repayable loans. In the same year, it was found that use of the program had increased by 24% for university recipients and 27% for college recipients, but enrolment had only increased 1% and 2% in those institutions in the same time. As of 2020, these numbers had not changed. This means that while student dependence on funding is growing, it is not associated with an increase in the number of students accessing post-secondary education. It also is not associated with an increase in the number of students completing their programs: across the province of Ontario, university graduation rates have also changed from 65.5% in 2014 to 65.9% in 2021. This is down from 79% in 2000.
Government focus on grants and loans attempts to level the playing field after the point of admission but ignores the full scope of student need and fails to support them through to graduation. School-provided student services are designed to fill that gap. Mental health services, healthcare and accessibility offices, and study supports provide students with essential services they often do not have the resources to get off-campus. Student quality of life is instrumental to academic achievement. These services allow students not only to attend post-secondary education but succeed there.
Education for all should not be limited to filling seats in first year classrooms but should be expanded to include filling graduation halls. Through the Ministry of Universities and Colleges, the Government of Ontario is equipped to offer provincial standards and quality assurance protocols, as well as funding for institutions to enhance these services to fit growing and diversifying student need. It simply requires a shift of focus from admission numbers to completion numbers.
Financial relief is crucial in opening the door for many historically excluded groups but does not encapsulate a holistic definition of education for all. Such a definition much go beyond financial relief to include essential services and support for students to aid them during their studies. This will, in turn, allow for a holistic experience of the benefits of increased access to education, in the form of a more educated, employed, and prosperous populace. Until universities truly acknowledge and accommodate “all students,” education for all will not be possible.
Ally Buchanan is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. She currently works as a Training Assistant with the New Brunswick Institute for Research, Data, and Training. Her interests include education, social, and international policy. Ally holds a Bachelor of Philosophy in Interdisciplinary Leadership from the University of New Brunswick.