A lack of transparency in the Loans and Bursaries Program

On March 3, the Québec Ombudsman – an ombudsman independent of the government whose mission is to ensure that citizens’ rights are respected with respect to ministerial bodies – published a special report entitled “Aide financière aux études: Better support students by showing transparency and listening”. With a length of 54 pages, the report focuses on the Aide financière aux études (AFE) service, a provincial government agency responsible for supporting students financially and managing the various student assistance benefits. This service comes under the Ministry of Education and Higher Education of Quebec. Following several complaints received – but not detailed in its report – the Québec Ombudsman took on the task of investigating three different issues. In sum, a lack of transparency and uniformity regarding different aspects of the process was detected.

Salient issues

Three main problems were identified by the Québec Ombudsman. The first is the opacity of the decision-making process. The Protector also highlighted the confusion surrounding the recognition of a major functional impairment (MFD) of individuals who apply for educational assistance. The third element is the lack of information given to the student in the event of a potential misrepresentation, for example on his income. These three aspects imply shortcomings with regard to transparency, communication and listening to students.

The first point denounced by the report is the lack of accessibility for students with regard to the decision-making process allowing the allocation of benefits. For example, the AFE website and its guide entitled “Help at your fingertips” are incomplete. Indeed, they do not describe all the rules used by AFE to make its decisions. This lack of transparency in the selection criteria can lead some students to express their incomprehension once they learn of the result of their application. In addition, the report mentions that the staff members responsible for processing the files take few or no analytical notes during the selection process. Consequently, it is often impossible to provide the student who requests it with additional information on his file.

Furthermore, although AFE has an Appeals Office in the event that a student wishes to challenge a decision, this body is not an independent entity. However, since decisions rendered by the AFE cannot be challenged before the Tribunal administratif du Québec (TAQ), the Appeals Office should have a “rigorous and fair review process”. The report thus denounced the lack of methodological uniformity in the processing of requests for review. In addition, he noted possible conflicts of interest linked to the fact that the person in charge of the Bureau does not hold an exclusive management position. In fact, she also combines the mandates of Director of Accessibility Programs and Responsible for Orientations, Policies and Legal and Regulatory Amendments.

The second point addressed by the report was the disparities in the treatment of recognition of major functional impairments (MFD). FMDs are defined in the report as visual, auditory, organic or motor impairments that can limit the performance of daily activities. While a reform of the criteria to identify DFMs was announced in 2016 by the AFE, it has still not taken place. The lack of standardization of eligibility criteria is therefore highlighted in the report. For example, if a doctor certifies to the AFE that a student concerned by a disability request will be able to integrate the world of work, the student in question will not be recognized as having a DFM. As mentioned in the report, “this criterion [l’approbation d’un professionnel de la santé, ndlr] is not listed anywhere and it excludes people who have submitted a valid medical certificate and meet all the eligibility criteria.

“This lack of transparency in the selection criteria can lead some students to express their incomprehension”

The third point examined by the Québec Ombudsman is related to the treatment of a potential misrepresentation from a student when he completes his file and his application. In the report, it is mentioned that “a student who makes a false statement to Student Financial Assistance is excluded from the Loans and Bursaries Program for two years”. However, the notice sent to the student in the event of a suspected breach – especially related to the declaration of income – is incomplete. Indeed, the AFE does not mention whether the recipient is suspected of lying, or what are the possible consequences incurred by this lie. In fact, according to the Québec Ombudsman, the AFE merely tells the potential claimant that “we will notify you of the follow-up that will be given to your file”. Moreover, the 10-day period given to the student to respond to the notice is considered too short by the Protector.

Solutions and Recommendations

The report proposed several avenues for reflection in order to resolve the issues raised. Spread over three pages, the 23 recommendations have, in the majority of cases, an application deadline set for May 31, 2022. Some of them must, however, be applied before May 1, 2022.East October 2022. They touch on different facets of the process used by AFE to decide whether or not to grant financial aid to the student who requests it.

Thus, recommendation #3 (R-3) mentions the importance for AFE members to note the reasons behind their various actions and decisions during the selection process. In the interest of transparency, the report recommends recording “the reasons that may have led them to give more weight to a piece of evidence or to reject certain information”. Following on from recommendation #3, recommendation #5 aims to clarify for students the decision-making models used by AFE by clarifying certain sections, in particular the appeal or review process. These two recommendations must be implemented no later than 1East October 2022.

In addition, recommendations ranging from 13 to 19 cover cases of major functional deficiencies. For example, recommendation #15 advises the establishment of additional training for personnel involved in the processing of applications for recognition of a major functional impairment. Recommendation #16, for its part, asks to stop “as of May 31, 2022, to replace the medical opinion issued by the doctor in the Medical certificate “.

While the requests described above were made to the Ministry of Higher Education, Recommendation #12 was made directly to Minister of Higher Education Danielle McCann. The report suggests that it propose legislative amendments “in order to create an appeal to the Administrative Tribunal of Quebec (TAQ) for people dissatisfied with a decision of the Appeals Office”.

The report mainly concludes that “AFE must adopt practices that respect the Act respecting administrative justice”. By April 4, 2022, a work plan with the actions undertaken by AFE as well as a timetable must be sent to the Ministry of Higher Education.

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