BACKGROUNDER: O'Neill report on student assistance

The report has many implications for Nova Scotia students

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Economist Tim O'Neill's report makes several recommendations about student financial assistance. (Photo: Nova Scotia government)

On Sept. 27, economist Tim O'Neill released a report commissioned by the provincial government outlining recommendations on post-secondary education.

O'Neill says if the government raises tuition fees, it should also make changes to student assistance programs.

The report recommends the government increase student financial assistance programs in the province and help the students with greatest financial need.

O'Neill makes three recommendations for student assistance:

The report suggests:
• Raising tuition fees
• More student loans and grants
• Limiting government funding
• Exploring mergers between universities
• Funding specific types of research

• Raise or eliminate the cap on student loans
• Increase the non-repayable grant part of student assistance
• Keep the Repayment Assistance Program

O'Neill's report outlines student assistance that's available from provincial and federal governments:

• Student loans that must be repaid:
Provincial: Nova Scotia Student Loan
Federal: Canada Student Loan
• Bursaries and grants that don't need to be repaid
• Income tax credits are available to students or parents who paid for tuition
• The federal government's scholarship program
• The federal government provides partially matching grants to students who contribute to a registered education savings program
• The provincial government's debt management program for circumstances where a borrower has trouble repaying the loan

The O'Neill report lists problems with student loans:

• Student assistance programs' ability to meet students' financial needs
• The portion of a student loan that's turned into a non-repayable grant
• Ways to ease the burden of debt for students after they graduate

O'Neill's take on tuition caps and increased student assistance:

O'Neill says removing caps on student tuition in a "straightforward and fair manner" is the most effective way to eliminate student assistance programs that don't meet students' financial needs.

O'Neill acknowledges that by increasing the amount of student assistance, students could become more burdened by debt.

He suggests:
• The government should limit the amount of repayable loans given each year
• Students who need modest financial assistance should get most of it from loans
• Grants should be given to students with greater financial need or students with fewer financial resources

Repayment Assistance Program

O'Neill says this program should be maintained because it helps students manage their provincial loan repayments.

Monthly payments on loans are determined by the gross household income of the borrower.

These payments don't exceed seven per cent of the gross family income.

Reactions to O'Neill's recommendations

Canadian Federation of Students-Nova Scotia (CFS-NS)

CFS-NS discusses issues in O'Neill's report in a brief prepared for Education Minister Marilyn More on Sept. 27:

• O'Neill ignores the fact that tuition fees go to universities and not to the government
• Changing this would "fundamentally alter university financing in Nova Scotia"
• Out-of-province students who receive assistance from their home province would have trouble handling increased tuition fees
• These students wouldn't be able to apply for O'Neill's proposed provincial loan and grants
• O'Neill didn't estimate how much it would cost the government to create his proposed financial assistance programs
• Grants for lower income students would have to be larger to curb the debt from larger limits to loans because of higher tuition fees
• Public policy to monitor tuition increases and keep financial assistance costs down is needed
• If it's the university's responsibility to set tuition fees, it would be difficult for the government to plan loan and grant programs appropriately

By not considering lowering tuition CFS-NS says O'Neill "significantly narrowed the scope of his review, and therefore, has failed to examine positive effects of such a policy decision."

The Alliance of Nova Scotia Student Associations (ANSSA)

In an 18-page response to the report sent to the minister of education, ANSSA says O'Neill's suggestions on student assistance are beneficial when considered separately from the rest of the report.

When considered with the recommendation to raise tuition fees, ANSSA says O'Neill's suggestions become "questionable."

ANSSA says there's no proof in the report that raising tuition and increasing financial assistance will lower a student's debt.

The association makes the following recommendations to the government:

• Increase the number of grants offered through financial assistance
• Change how student loans programs handle students who work and study
• Reconsider expectations for parental contribution
• Change expectations for spousal contributions for married students
• Fight for all information on student assistance programs to be made public

Nova Scotia government

The government is hosting public forums across the province between Nov. 16 and 30 on student assistance programs.

This includes six meetings and a video conference.

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