O'Neill defends report to angry students

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Economist Tim O'Neill faces students at Dalhousie University. (Photo: Ezra Black)

Angry students confronted economist Tim O'Neill as he made the case for dramatic changes to Nova Scotia's university system at Dalhousie University on Thursday.

During his introduction he addressed the tension in the room saying he felt "like David walking into the lion's den."

O'Neill completed his report for the provincial government in September. Many of his recommendations have struck a nerve with students and faculty around the province.

Much of the discussion centred on his suggestion that tuition fees should rise. O'Neill defended this point several times arguing there's no evidence to suggest higher tuition fees have or will stop young people from getting a university education.

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Students wait to voice their concerns. (Photo: Ezra Black)

Several students stood up and shouted in opposition. Students shared their stories of personal debt; some said they were nearly $75,000 in the red.

The Canadian Federation of Students says students with four-year undergraduate degrees in Nova Scotia have an average debt of $31,000 after graduation.

O'Neill said if students thought university is too expensive in Nova Scotia, they would "vote with their feet" and seek an education in a different province.

One student yelled out to encourage students who would need to leave the province next year because of rising tuition costs to stand up. About 10 students stood up.

O'Neill said declining enrolment and a dismal economic forecast will force universities to restructure, with the deregulation of tuition fees central to the change in financing.

He recommended student assistance be more robust to soften the financial blow to students. He suggested a cap on student debt, a restructuring of student assistance payment plans and an increase to grants and bursaries.

It was a hard sell to people in the room and many said they felt they weren't represented in his report. One person accused O'Neill of putting students and taxpayers in different categories.

"We pay taxes and I'm confused as to why you keep acting like we don't."

O'Neill is a consultant, not a government official, and he made it clear he isn't concerned whether his suggestions are followed. The government hasn't given any hint of its intentions to adopt O'Neill's recommendations.

The event was hosted by the Halifax Citadel-Sable Island Liberal Association and Liberal MLA Zach Churchill was there to plug his party. He said the Nova Scotia Liberal party "thinks that debt is a bad thing" and is against raising tuition fees.

One female student said she was skeptical of the discussion's purpose.

"Is this an attempt to hear the opinions of students and attempt to revise the report?" she said. "Or is this all just a show so we can feel we've had our say?"

O'Neill said he anticipates he will continue "to disagree on some of the fundamental recommendations" of the report with students.

"Some people felt I went too far. Some people felt it didn't go far enough. So maybe I hit it just right."

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