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Dexter government continues to hire Tim O’Neill

Mark Coffin, Staff Contributor

“Students need to be invited to the table during the negotiation of the next university funding agreement.” This is the message the Alliance of Nova Scotia Student Associations (ANSSA) has been sharing with every MLA, minister and public servant we’ve met with over the past two years. It was one of the guiding principles used to help create the current funding agreement under the leadership of then-Education Minister, and now Progressive Conservative Education Critic, Karen Casey. It is also the same message that Liberal Education Critic Kelly Regan expressed to the Minister of Education, Marilyn More, last Tuesday in the legislature.

So why are students being kept out of discussions about the negotiation of the next funding agreement? It would appear that the government is more interested in working with economist Tim O’Neill than working with students.

Between January and September, stakeholders across the higher education sector waited patiently for O’Neill to complete his government commissioned review of the universities. The result: a call for unregulated increases in tuition fees alongside equally unpopular proposals for merging schools.

Student groups have spoken out against the recommendations. All of the faculty unions in the province have given the report a failing grade. Even some university administrations, such as those at Cape Breton University and Mount Saint Vincent University, have expressed opposition to O’Neill’s plans for tuition.

Our government said they would listen to stakeholders with genuine interest. Instead, the Dexter government has gone behind our backs and rehired O’Neill to sell the findings from his report to the public, while advising the province on negotiating a new funding agreement with the universities.

According to a freedom of information request filed by ANSSA, O’Neill’s extended contract was signed at the end of July, almost two months prior to the public release of his report—long before stakeholders were given an opportunity to provide feedback.  He will continue to receive compensation for his work until mid-December (unless, of course, Premier Darryl Dexter decides to hire him again).

Why is government continuing to seek counsel from the author of a report that was near universally decried? According to Dexter, it’s because he likes what O’Neill has to say. “We value the work that he’s done,” he noted in the legislature last week. “We hope he will continue to provide the good advice.”

Dexter has done anything but distance himself from O’Neill’s recommendations on tuition by appointing him as advisor to the team that will set the next number of years worth of tuition policy for the province. O’Neill’s continued employment can only be viewed as the government’s silent adoption of his recommendation to increase tuition.

O’Neill appears to have taken the spot formerly filled by elected student leaders. For over a year, elected student leaders have been requesting detailed information on how students will be involved in the creation of the next university funding agreement. When asked about the issue in Question Period last Wednesday, Minister More gave no indication that students would be a part of the group negotiating the next agreement. Meanwhile, university presidents have already received their invitation to the discussions.

If you are angry and frustrated with the government’s oppositional attitude towards students and its alliance with economists who argue for increased fees, speak out!

Send a pre-written letter to your MLA by visiting ANSSA’s campaign site at Phone or visit your MLA. Call the Minister of Education. Most importantly, get in touch with your student union to learn how you can help out with on-the-ground campaigns. If you don’t speak up, they’ll think you don’t care.

Mark Coffin is the Executive Director of the Alliance of Nova Scotia Student Associations. 

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