Student group frustrated by O’Neill Report

CFS says recommendations turn provincial debt into student debt

October 1, 2010- The Dalhousie Gazette

Laura Conrad and Samantha Durnford

News Editor and Assistant News Editor

Student groups are preparing their responses to a report commissioned by the government of Nova Scotia that calls for higher tuition fees and more student loans.

On Sept. 17, economist Tim O’Neill released his report on the university system in this province. The report intends to influence the government’s upcoming decisions on tuition fees and university funding, and was highly anticipated by student groups

Representatives from student unions as well as the Canadian Federation of Students listened intently in the Province House press room as O’Neill outlined the new challenges universities are expected to face in the upcoming years. O’Neill identified two major challenges in his report.

The first challenge he expects is an expected decline in enrolments. The report states that the number of Nova Scotians aged 17 to 29 will shrink by 11,000 in the next five years, and by 2030, that age group will be 23 per cent smaller than it is now.

The other, newer challenge highlighted in the report is the restraint in the province’s fiscal plan. If the government intends to balance the budget by 2013/2014, it will have to place stricter limits on spending. This, he says, will affect government’s financial contributions to universities. In response to these challenges, the report offers several recommendations, including increasing government investment in student loans, modest university restructuring, and an increase in tuition fees.

O’Neill said that the tuition increase will ease the impacts of fiscal restraint. He also supports the recommendation by mentioning that tuition levels have a low impact on accessibility, and that the long- term benefits of university education outweigh tuition costs. Alongside this recommendation, O’Neill stresses that tuition increases must be accompanied by an increase in student assistance in the form of loans.

He told listeners that “Nova Scotia has one of the weakest student assistance programs in the country.”

O’Neill says that the tuition increase will be beneficial when balanced with an increase in government funding and financial assistance for students.

The Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) strongly object to the O’Neill report. CFS says tuition fees in Nova Scotia already exceed the national average. In a news release that came out the day before the O’Neill report, the CFS hoped the report would include recommendations to make post- secondary education more affordable.

Gabe Hoogers, the provincial representative of the CFS, says that they “regard this change as a betrayal of students and their families.”

Hoogers says that the recommendation to deregulate tuition would mean a skyrocketing of fees for both in- and out-of-province students. More fees mean more debt, and the average student already graduates $30,000 in debt, he says.

Hoogers says that the raise in tuition fees is a short term fix for economic problems which will hurt our economy in the future since students will be driven away from Nova Scotia universities and will be end up leaving Nova Scotia after they graduate, due to high debt.

In response to the O’Neill report, CSF said in a release that high tuition fees are a barrier to post-secondary education, especially for students from low and middle income families and marginalized communities. The stress that students will end up paying more for their education over the years as a result of time and interest rates.

“I want to emphasize the complete falsity of the claims in this report,” says Hoogers. “Really a lot of what O’Neill assumes in creating these recommendations has already been disproved.”

He says that CFS will be fighting back and organizing rallies, such as one taking place this February.

“We’re going to see students go to the streets against this,” says Hoogers. “Ultimately students do recognize that higher fees aren’t what we want to see.”

Matt Anderson, President of Saint Mary’s Students’ Association believes that getting rid of the tuition freeze is not a good idea.

“When you have a proposal out there to get rid of the tuition freeze, that’s a huge problem for affordability and accessibility of post secondary education in Nova Scotia,” says Anderson.

He says that students at Saint Mary’s, much like any other university, rely not only on student assistance but also on the tuition freeze. Getting rid of the freeze will most likely deter students from coming to schools here in Nova Scotia.

“Imagine you’re a first year student and you’re making the decision to go to university,” says Anderson. “You look at tuition and think ‘is that a financial option for me, yes or no,’ and that is the barrier we’re going to have.”

He says that there seems to be very little recognition of the economic benefits and the social benefits of having an educated work force in Nova Scotia.

“When you have students grad- uating in debt, they don’t have the opportunity to invest in new jobs or be an entrepreneur and that’s where this proposal could hurt the economy.”

Anderson says that the Alliance of Nova Scotia Student Association, of which Dalhousie is a member, is formulating their approach to the O’Neill report. He says they will wait to hear how the government responds to the recommendations before making a move.

“You never know,” says Anderson. “Someone could stand up and say ‘maybe we still need a tuition freeze.’”

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