Ethnography of the University / Ethnography of the University: Focus on Time 2019 / Undergraduate Ethnography

Time is OSAP Money: The Restructuring of Student Temporalities as a Result of Cuts to OSAP, By Agha Saadaf (Ethnography of the University 2019: Focus on Time)

This final paper was part of the coursework for the Ethnographic Practicum courses ANT473 and ANT6200, “Ethnography of the University 2019: Focus on Time”

I met with Dana sometime towards the end of October in her office at College X, after having booked an appointment for financial counseling at the registrar’s. Having been introduced to her previously over the past summer when I needed to withdraw from a class, there was a certain sense of familiarity from the onset of the meeting. After a brief catch-up on how my semester was going since the summer, I sat down to explain why I booked an appointment with her: I needed financial assistance from the College because my OSAP funding got slashed in half from $11372 last year to $6903 this year as a result of the Ford government’s restructuring of provincial student aid. I also informed her, and that I was working on a research project on how students have been seeking similar aid as a result of this new policy. I explained that my total funding was not only drastically reduced, but that the large majority of it was a loan, with minimal grants. This was in stark contrast to my funding last year, when I received almost twice as much in total, with an even split between loans and grants. In response, Dana advised me to apply for the University’s grant application on ACORN and to explore scholarships, which I learned from her was standard advisory procedure for students coming in seeking financial aid. Even at that early point in the school year, in the first semester where the OSAP restructuring took effect, I learned from Dana that I was only one of many students citing the funding cuts as a reason to come in for financial advising.  

As I said, however, I didn’t go into this meeting purely for my desperate financial situation, but to also see firsthand what steps students were told to take when coming in for aid due to insufficient OSAP funding. As I found myself taking on a lighter courseload and taking on a casual on-campus job for the new semester to offset my new monetary shortfalls to whatever extent I could, I wondered how a lack of funding could reorient the ways other OSAP-dependant students managed their time during the academic year and what tactics they employed in order to adapt to changing financial circumstances. As the saying goes after all, time really is money. Thus, Sseeking financial aid through one’s college, to me, seemed to be one of many tactics aid-reliant students undertook in order to accommodate for the lack of funding when making more time to work was not an option. Speaking with some of my peers, these tactics did nonetheless predominantly involved the restructuring of their daily schedules to take on (often more) part-time work on top of fulltime studies; the alternative to this, however, was to dwell in financial anxiety for the rest of the school year. Throughout my research following aid-dependent students, financial anxiety became very clearly the shared central theme of their unique experiences and circumstances. Though it seems obvious that reductions to student aid funding would naturally lead to increased feelings of concern, this became puzzling when I learned that not all students saw a drastic change in the total amount of funding, seeing a shift only in their loan-grant ratios where loans now made up the majority of funding. If some of my interlocutors were basically getting the same amount of money as previous years, why were these feelings of financial worry about OSAP funding borderline unanimous among my peer-subjects? Through my study of the organizational structure of OSAP funding disbursement and repayment (both current and previous), it became clear that Tthis financial anxiety was not only related to current monetary shortfalls in terms of living costs and tuition, but also for the future as interest on the provincial portion of student loans would now begin accruing upon graduation – another aspect of the student aid restructure. Heavily inspired by Hartmut Rosa’s division of time into the three categories of “daily time”, “life-course time”, and “epochal time” in “Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity” (2013, 8), I chose to approach my research from the angles of Rosa’s first two categories. As such, I aimed to investigate how aid-reliant students’ temporalities were transformed by the new restructuring of the Ontario Student Assistance Program both in the short-term of their daily schedules and in the long-term of their outlooks on life post-graduation. 

Through significant backlash and multiple student protests in the harsh winter weather that kicked off the year of 2019, Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government announced and enacted massive changes to funding for public post-secondary institutions (such as the University of Toronto) as well as the Ontario Student Assistance Program. What started off as a 10% cut on tuition fees (which would amount to roughly $660 a year for those attending university) was soon followed by a reduction in the income-threshold to qualify for grants, an increase in expected contributions from students and their parents (who would thus receive less funding overall), a change to grant-to-loan ratios to a minimum 50% loan, the ability for students to opt-out of certain incidental fees (a policy deemed illegal by the courts as of this writing), and the elimination of the 6-month interest-free grace period for loan repayments after graduation (Ministry of Colleges and Universities 2019). Enacted with the intentions of “restoring financial sustainability to OSAP” and to ensure that “money stays in the pockets of students and their families”, these changes marked a significant shift from the previous administration’s student assistance policies (ibid). As part of their  budget in 2016, the Ontario Liberal government helmed by Kathleen Wynne announced a plan to make tuition free for families earning under $83 000 per year and to eliminate student loan debt for those earning under $50 000 per year, with the justification of breaking down barriers to education for lower-income Ontarians and investing in the province’s economic future (Office of the Premier 2016). While this was touted as “the largest investment in public infrastructure in Ontario’s history” back in 2016, the Progressive Conservatives of 2018 dismissed it as “unsustainable” and as an infringement on students personal choices, in their blend of populist-yet-neoliberal rhetoric (Office of the Premier 2016; Ministry of Colleges and Universities 2019). For students who had gotten accustomed to generous OSAP loans that allowed them to focus more on academics than on their costs of living and tuition, and for students who could now actually afford to enter post-secondary education, this shift in policy came as a gut-punch. In some more extreme cases, students had to drop out of school and re-enter the fulltime workforce in order to save up and attend next year instead. Though I could not speak to anyone at the University of Toronto who felt it necessary to take that step, my student interlocutors felt significantly increased pressures to work more during the academic year and worried about employment after graduation on account of the elimination of the 6-month interest-free grace period on provincial student loans. As such, I explore not only how these anxieties manifested in the restructuring of University of Toronto students’ daily schedules in comparison to last year and in their outlooks on life after being handed their undergraduate diplomas, but also the structure and presence of collegiate financial aid systems available to students in financial need.   

Financial and Temporal Shifts

The aid-reliant students I spoke to all come from various walks of life and backgrounds, ranging from low-income immigrants, mature students, and amateurfuture ethnobotanists. Though they had enough commonalities for me to lump them into these groupings, their circumstances and planned life trajectories were generally drastically different; some have been working part-time throughout their undergrad, some have recently quit their jobs to focus on academics for their last year before graduating, some plan to stay in academia all the way to a PhD, others exiting with their Bachelor’s degree. Despite these differences, the restructuring of OSAP under the Progressive Conservative government of Ontario has had very tangible effects on how these students organize and balance their time at school, work, and everyday life. In the short term, these effects involved sweeping changes in how my interlocutors organized their courseloads and study schedules for the 2019-2020 school year and how they invested time in extracurriculars and external education.  

I was introduced to Tahseen, a 4th-year Health Studies and Health Policy major at the University of Toronto, Scarborough (UTSC), this past Spring through a close friend that I had also interviewed for this project. Growing up in the United States in a low-income Bengali household, her Ontarian residency from middle-school onwards and consequent eligibility for OSAP was the only way for her to attend university after graduating from high school in Scarborough, especially considering how prohibitively expensive American post-secondary education can be. Tahseen is currently co-president of two pre-med student clubs at UTSC, took on a part-time job this year, and volunteers for her local Member of Provincial Parliament, amounting up to approximately 25-40 hours of extracurricular work combined. “Overworking myself is my biggest weakness”, she said. After our initial interview in a crowded Starbucks in Scarborough, she was generous enough to show me the breakdowns of her OSAP funding over the past two years. Last year (the 2018-2019 school year), Tahseen had received a total of $15 582, $9814 (about 63%) of which was in grants and $5768 (about 37%) as a loan. With yearly tuition being roughly $8200 for Arts and Science students at the University of Toronto at the time, not only was tuition fully paid for in grants, but a significant amount was left over to cover costs of living throughout the school year. For the current 2019-2020 school year, however, her total OSAP funding was cut in half to a sum of $7671, with $4392 (57%) in grants and $3279 (43%) in loans. Though tuition for this school year was brought down to about $7600 as a result of the 10% cut to tuition fees for public post-secondary institutions, this amount was just enough to cover tuition on the dot; nothing to cover costs of living during her full-time studies. As a result, Tahseen not only started dipping into her savings to cover living costs throughout the school year but also took on part-time employment on top of her unpaid student executive positions. To accommodate for this extra workload, she made the explicit decision to take a lighter courseload this semester made up of mostly online courses in order to have more scheduling flexibility. 

For students who found themselves unable to work or take on more work than they already have during their full-time studies this year, their free time outside of studying (and often during studying) was spent in financial anxiety. Take, for example, Edward, a mature student specializing in socio-cultural anthropology at the University of Toronto’s St. George campus (UTSG). Last year, Edward had received about $12 000 in OSAP funding, with approximately $8500 in grants and $3500 in loans. On top of this, Edward would work 25-30 hours every weekend to help cover his living costs and daily expenses. As a commuter from Mississauga, he spends about $20 a day on transportation alone. Somewhat luckily for him, the OSAP cuts did not affect him as severely as they did Tahseen or even myself; his funding stayed roughly the same though with a decrease in grants and an increase in the loan portion by about $1000. However, this still proves problematic for him now, as he quit his job to take on the maximum load of 6 courses per semester for the entire school year to graduate within the four years he allotted himself for his undergrad. As such, he now has to worry about budgeting more intensely for his daily expenses, spending more time on campus (often staying from 8-9am to 6-7pm) in order to take full advantage of his transportation costs. Because of this, however, he also finds himself spending more money on food on campus. Though the rescheduling of his school schedule was predominantly out of a personal motivation to graduate in four years by taking a heavy courseload, the lack of OSAP funding in proportion to his current financial situation of unemployment means that sustaining himself on campus becomes more difficult and it means that he does not have much money to spend time socializing, which for him is an effective de-stressor. It also means that he does not have the time or the funds to be as politically active as he used to be through his involvement with the Council of Canadians advocacy group. While his school schedule was not directly impacted by the restructuring of OSAP, the cuts still govern how he spends his free time this year. 

Extracurriculars, which I’m defining here as academic activities outside of course material affiliated and unaffiliated with the University, can be a great way to enrich one’s undergraduate experience and provide a vital change of pace from studies. “Volunteering with this sexual health group on campus is easily one of the best things I’ve done”, said Fariha, a 4th-year Global Health major with a strong interest in reproductive and sexual health advocacy. Using extracurriculars to gain some sort of work experience in fields students desire a career in is not uncommon, as the students I spoke to can attest.  However, these activities often require a significant time investment, which can mean also mean a significant financial investment in times of student aid austerity, especially for extracurricular activities not affiliated with the University. Over the past summer, an opportunity had arisen for Tahseen to take on a paid internship abroad, vital work experience that could potentially help set up a career after her undergrad. After getting her significantly reduced OSAP estimates for the 2019-2020 school year last spring, she had a choice to make: whether she should take on this summer internship or stay at home to work fulltime and make as much money as possible in preparation for her reduced student aid. During my interview with her, she regretfully expressed her disappointment in having picked the latter option. 

Abe, another anthropology student, also saw a significant decrease to his total OSAP funding this year by the tune of $4000, receiving just enough to cover tuition as well. Last year, whatever OSAP funding he could save went towards a summer-long trip to South America. This was not solely for leisure; Abe went to South America to learn and improve his Spanish and familiarize himself with the regions he visited for the scholarly work on ethnobotany he wants to do in the future. Sitting on the couch in the Anthropology Building’s undergraduate office, Abe explained his academic goals to me: he came to study at the University of Toronto for the quality of its anthropology program, so he could get the necessary education to become an ethnobotanist and conduct research on shamanic traditions later in his academic career. Seeing as how his OSAP funding could only cover tuition this year, the money he makes from working part-time as a barista can only go towards his rent, transportation, and food costs. He is currently unable to invest his time towards enriching his education outside of the classroom towards his career goal.

These examples depict some of the ways the Progressive-Conservative overhaul of the Ontario Student Assistance Program have restructured and governed the everyday schedules of the aid-reliant students I spoke to. In the long-term, however, the elimination of the 6-month interest-free grace period on provincial student loans and increased proportion of loans over grants was the principle source of anxieties related to aid-reliant students’ outlooks on life post-grad, the most common worry being whether or not they would have to delay their career goals in order to pay off their student loans. This was a concern felt most strongly by Tahseen and Edward, the two students who do not plan on immediately following up their undergrad with post-grad studies. In my conversation with the fellow Scarborian, Tahseen expressed her desire to take a gap year after graduating in order to build up her work experience a bit more before applying to a Master’s program. As a result, the interest on the provincial portion of her student loans will begin accruing the moment she leaves fulltime studies to pursue that gap year, and will continue to do so until she re-enters fulltime studies for her Master’s. This was a cause for major financial concernfinancial anxieties for her, as she worried about having to get a job irrelevant to her goal and delaying the start of her career so she can pay off her student loans. “Careers shouldn’t be on the backburner to pay off student loans”, she said. 

On the other hand, Edward seemed to have already mapped out his options in response to the elimination of the 6-month interest-free grace period on his OSAP loans. Not a huge advocate for the hierarchical nature of post-secondary education, Edward had decided that he would be content with getting a job related to the discipline of anthropology with his Bachelor’s, preferably in the field of indigenous relations and advocacy in Northern Ontario or Northern British Columbia. As a backup, however, he has already applied for jobs with the Toronto Transit Commission and MyWay (Mississauga’s transit agency)) as backups in order to establish a steady stream of income once the time comes to begin his student loan and interest repayments. “If that’s what I have to do before I get going, then that’s the situation I’m in”, Edward summarized. 

Edward and Tahseen’s feelings on anxiety or sense of preparation for the increased interest payments they face stand in contrast to Abe and Greg, who both share a desire to remain in academia for the foreseeable future and pursue careers as anthropologists. In my interview with Greg, another mature student studying Anthropology, I learned of his goal to stay in academia as a career, with the hopes of maybe even one day making professorship. As interest does not accrue during fulltime studies, Greg was not concerned with the elimination of the 6-month interest-free grace period at all. This was also due to his relative financial security from his job, his OSAP funding (which did not differ that much from last year’s total), and money left over from his grandmother. 

That being said, Greg’s financial circumstances were within the confines of eligibility for a grant application from his college, as he is a financially independent mature fulltime student with bills to pay. When I first heard him talk about this grant application on ACORN, I wondered how it might be helpful to students such as myself who have been affected by the recent cuts to OSAP and whether or not it would be an effective tactic to offset any student aid discrepancies. I went in for a financial counselling appointment in late October, where Dana the financial advisor recommended I look into scholarships and the grant application on ACORN. As a result, I decided to go through the grant application process myself not only for my own financial needs, but also to see firsthand what the process is like for aid-reliant students.  

Seeking Aid

The process itself was fairly straightforward: the student-in-need fills out an application form on ACORN stating their sources of income, much like one would when applying for OSAP. The key factor in this application, however, is the text box at the end that allows for students to explain their circumstances and why they are in need of a grant, thus centring the application on student self-advocacy. After filling out the application, I had to meet with a financial advisor again to assess my situation through a run-down of my statements. At this point, I was told that OSAP’s new expected student contribution to tuition of $3500 would apply to my estimated shortfall and grant disbursal. I then had to wait about two weeks for the decision to be finalized by the college’s grant committee before receiving $2000 in my chequing account. 

In my interview with Colleen, a high-ranking registrar at College X, I learned that the money for the college-administered grant application, along with other collegiate awards and aid, comes from a blend of provincially allocated funds and private donations. As a result, some colleges with a longer history than others may see more options for financial awards available. That being said, the grant application is available to all undergraduate colleges and divisions through ACORN. The amount of money available for disbursal under the grant application was not affected by the provincial government’s restructuring of OSAP and university funding. However, it is expected to affect UTAPS, the University’s financial aid system that steps in when a student’s needs are assessed to be greater than the maximum allowance of OSAP.  According to the University of Toronto’s budget report for the 2019-2020 school year, the cuts in tuition are estimated to decrease the UTAPS budget by $4 million (University of Toronto 2019, 29). Based on my observations, the college’s response to the cuts, in terms of advertising support for students, has been somewhat minimal. According to Colleen, the establishment of the college’s new Office of Communications has helped in getting the word out on scholarships through social media and email newsletters. Scouring through the college’s Instagram page and the record of newsletters in my UofT email inbox, there did not appear to be more scholarships available than the usual (admittedly generous) amount, and certainly were not advertised as support for the restructuring of OSAP many students have faced. Perhaps as a form of triage, students who are in need seem to be expected to come in for financial advising, where they are recommended to apply for a grant through ACORN. The grant application itself is not very well publicized, with knowledge of it spreading mostly through financial advising appointments with one’s registrar’s office, through student word of mouth, or chancing upon it on the sidebar of the ACORN webpage; only two of my interlocutors had heard of it when I interviewed them. However, the emphasis on financial advising and the grant application seems to be the principal method of offering support for aid-reliant students affected by the cuts to OSAP funding on the part of the college, especially as there are now less avenues to appeal one’s OSAP assessment with the increase in expected student and parental contributions, even from low-income families. Based on my experience, and those of my two interlocutors that have made use of the grant application, the process can indeed be fruitful in these times of student-aid austerity, especially when an extensive restructuring of one’s daily routines to find a job or work more hours is not a viable option.  

Conclusions and Cliffhangers

Echoing Nielsen and Sarauw’s 2017 study of how European student temporalities were reoriented towards thinking about future labour markets by the implementation of the Credit Transfer and Accumulation System, this study has demonstrated how Ontarian post-secondary students’ temporalities were shifted by the Progressive Conservative government’s restructuring of the Ontario Student Assistance Program in 2019. A diverse array of aid-reliant students at the University of Toronto I spoke to found themselves using different techniques to offset the cuts to OSAP funding they faced, ranging from restructuring their academic schedules to take on part-time work, using their savings to spend on living costs (sometimes at the expense of extracurricular academic work such as internships), and seeking financial aid from scholarships and collegiate grants. This was paired with feelings of anxietyies about their future lives after graduation and setting up desired careers, as the removal of the 6-month interest-free grace period meant more student loans to pay off once they are out of fulltime studies. During the course of my research, as a University of Toronto student who also found himself affected by the cuts to OSAP funding, seeking financial aid from collegiate grants proved to be a very effective way to offset the impact of the cuts when the restructuring of routines to take on more part-time work was not an option. However, this study was done in the first semester the restructuring of the Ontario Student Assistance Program took effect, and therefore it is still unclear what the full impact of the cuts on student financial aid will look like. This is a point also shared by University administrators such as the registrars I spoke to, who have stated the difficulty of fully assessing the situation, as they were blindsided by the extent of the funding reductions. As such, it may be prove to be a fruitful endeavour to follow up on my interlocutors, both student and administrative, at the end of the year to get a more complete picture on how Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government has governed student temporalities through the restructuring of OSAP. 


Ministry of Colleges and Universities. “Affordability of Postsecondary Education in Ontario”. January 17th, 2019.

Nielsen, Gritt B., and Laura Louise Sarauw. “Tuning up and tuning in: how the European Bologna process is influencing students’ time of study.” In Death of the Public University?, pp. 156-172. Berghahn Books, 2017.

Office of the Premier. “New Ontario Student Grant Making Tuition Free for Tens of Thousands of Students: College and University Becoming More Accessible and Affordable”. March 1st, 2016. 

Rosa, Hartmut. Social acceleration: A new theory of modernity. Columbia University Press, 2013.

University of Toronto. Budget Report 2019–20 and Long Range Budget Guidelines 2019–20 to 2023–24. University of Toronto Planning and Budget Office. 2019.$!26+Budget/budget2019.pdf#page=29

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