A textbook example of bad media relations

Yesterday, I dusted off an old article I wrote last year about how students can save money on textbooks.

Doing this, I remembered that Ontario is implementing its new Textbook and Technology Grant this September.

Announced last fall by Dalton McGuinty as part of his Liberal party’s re-election platform, the grant is designed to assist students dealing with ever-increasing textbook and technology costs. This promise was the cornerstone of McGuinty’s post-secondary platform and heavily touted by Liberal candidates in ridings with large student populations. McGuinty and his government were returned to power in the fall 2007 election and his government promised to make the implementation of the grant a priority.

In March, in the first budget of its second term, the Ontario government unveiled the funding for the grant. When I enquired about the criteria for the grant back then, we were told details would be released during the summer.

So yesterday, I went looking for information on the grant.

A quick Google search found nothing. Nothing using Yahoo. Okay, sometimes search engines miss items. Off to the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) website. A search of all the grants pages there turned up nothing. Off I went to the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities website. Again nothing.

A couple of people had asked me about the grant recently while they were out buying textbooks.

I decided this would make an easy news piece that I could quickly write to inform readers about the grants.

I sent a list of questions to the Minister’s staff and waited for a response.

Here are the questions I sent: “When does the government plan to unveil details on this grant which is supposed to be implemented starting with the upcoming (08/09) academic year? How will the grant be managed? Will students be required to qualify for OSAP in order to receive the grant? If not, how will students not receiving OSAP apply for the grant? Will Ontario residents attending a public PSE institution outside of the province receive the grant? Will students be required to purchase textbooks from college/university bookstores? If so, what steps has the government taken to ensure colleges and universities do not increase textbook prices in response to the increased business? Will students be able to apply the grant to used textbooks?”

Here’s the response I received:

“Details on the textbook and technology grant — along with the application form — will be released in early September,” wrote Annette Phillips, senior advisor, communications for Minister of Training, Colleges, and Universities John Milloy in an email. “The 2008 Budget announced this initiative as one measure to help lower costs for students. Approximately 380,000 full-time university students and 170,000 full-time college students will benefit annually with a grant of $150 per student this fall, increasing to $225 per student in fall ’09 and to $300 in subsequent years.”

I figured I asked too many questions in my first email and narrowed my questions down to things students need to know about the grants now.I sent a follow-up email with the following questions: “What message do you have for students unsure if their textbook purchases will qualify for the grant? Are there any restrictions on how they spend their grant? Is it an automatic credit that every full-time student will get without any receipts?”

Phillips responded, “All of the details on the textbook and technology grant will be coming to students in September. We’ll be letting students know how and where to apply for the grant — and what the eligibility requirements are — at the beginning of the school year. ”

This was not what I was looking for. Students are encouraged, and in some cases required, to purchase textbooks prior to the beginning of the school year.

I sent another follow-up email clarifying the reason I was making the enquiry, “The primary thrust of my question is to inform my readership of what not to do if they wish to receive the grant. Is it possible for students to forfeit this grant by purchasing from an unauthorized retailer?”

At this point, I was looking for a scrap of information. Any scrap would do; they didn’t have to tell me everything they know, just give me enough to run a quick news piece saving students will be receiving $150 as a textbook credit provided they keep their receipts or if they didn’t need receipts.

The response: “We will be providing all necessary information to students in September, along with the application form. May I suggest you wait to inform your readers about the grant until such time as we can provide you with accurate information about how this grant works?”

At this point I realized my attempts to obtain answers were futile and was a simple news story was no longer so simple. The government clearly didn’t get it. Depending on the terms and conditions the government sets on these new grants, a student purchasing textbooks from the wrong place or in the wrong way (used books for example) could disqualify themselves from receiving the grants. By the time the government gets around to revealing the terms and conditions, it could be too late for thousands of students.

And so, the story changed.

It was no longer informing students about a grant they could obtain, rather about how the government wasn’t providing students with this necessary information.Considering the government had five months since the budget (and almost a year since they decided this would be a major part of their re-election platform) to actually figure things out, I found this lack of information to be newsworthy.

Here’s what the student politicians had to say:

“It is our hope that this information will be available ASAP to inform students.” says Tyler Charlebois, director of advocacy for the College Student Alliance. “We want to make sure that all Ontario students take full advantage of these new grants to better assist them in affording postsecondary education.”

“The budget was released in March,” says Shelley Melanson, chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students – Ontario. “They’ve had ample time to figure this out … this was the only gift for post-secondary students in the budget, they need to know how to access it.”The Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario is calling on the government to save more on administration by reducing tuition instead of creating more bureaucracy to administer a grant which has the same effect. “This should be direct funding,” says Melanson. “We’d rather see a reduction in tuition … the biggest upfront cost students face is tuition.”

“Increased and new forms of assistance for the students of Ontario is welcome by OUSA and we hope to continue to work with stakeholders and government to make sure that the provision of better and more effective assistance is always a short-term goal,” says Trevor Mayoh, president of the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance. “We are concerned and disappointed that sufficient information regarding the distribution and application process for the grant has not been made available to Ontario students.”

He continued, “OUSA hoped that this grant would be used by every eligible student but the school year is looming ever closer and we have not seen the government unveil a firm plan on how they will be approaching students and informing them on how to apply and benefit from the program.”

During this time, I responded to Phillips’ email by stating: “Unfortunately, we’ve been receiving inquiries about the grant from our readers and with students already purchasing textbooks, we feel it necessary to run a story informing students where things stand on this grant. It was announced in the budget back in March. I’ve waited for the announcement of details since then.”

The response I received from Phillips: “I assume you will be careful to relay the facts I’ve provided and avoid making assumptions about how the grant will work.”

Checking back on the emails back and forth, the only new fact I had was that the government wasn’t saying anything until at least September 1st and I doubt the Minister would do a photo-op on Labour Day.

I asked Rosario Marchese, post-secondary critic for the NDP, what he thought:

“They were efficient in their announcement of the grant and have been deficient in their implementation,” he said. “They’ve had five months to work out the little details […] this is unacceptable.” He said the government must do more for students. “This is the only grant for students in the budget and the government seems to be trying to discourage students from taking advantage of it.”

At this point, I tried one last attempt at getting some info, by contacting the Premier’s office.

I repeatedly asked the Premier’s office if they could at least tell me what, if anything, students had to do right now to make sure they qualify for the grant.

The Premier’s office said they could not give me this information.

In the end, we have no idea of how the government will actually implement this grant and we don’t know when they’ll actually get around to announcing it. We can be sure they’ll spend a lot of money making it sure the photo-opportunity looks good. (Anyone want to take bets that I won’t be invited to this photo-op?)

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