Brief to the Honourable Marilyn More
Minister of Education
October 19th, 2010
The Association of Nova Scotia University Teachers
The Dalhousie Faculty Association
On behalf of our respective organizations, we welcome the invitation to meet with you to discuss our concerns with regard to the recommendations contained in the recently released Report on the University System in Nova Scotia.
Having reviewed the report in detail, and after extensive discussion with our members, we have to say that we find the report in many respects a puzzling document. While ostensibly the work of an independent consultant, it has clearly involved extensive consultation with the Premier’s office, and one can only conclude that the bulk of its recommendations are ones to which the government is prepared to give favourable consideration. Our perplexity stems from the fact that so many of them cannot be reconciled with the platform on which the present government was elected. Indeed, should the government implement some of the report’s recommendations, it would put post-secondary education out of reach for many students, while limiting choices for those who find a way to stay.
Of the report’s proposals, perhaps the most egregious is the recommendation that tuition fees be deregulated, accompanied by the frankly unpersuasive argument that this would not have an impact on access. To act on such a recommendation would, in effect, undo all the progress that has been accomplished under the terms of the current Memorandum of Understanding, which has seen government funding as a proportion of university revenues rise from 42% to just over 50%. While it is true this remains well below the national average, it should be noted that one consequence of the current MOU is that for the first time in more than two decades Nova Scotia’s tuition fees are no longer the highest in Canada.
The erroneous assumptions on which Dr. O’Neill’s recommendations regarding tuition levels are based have been comprehensively refuted in the Brief provided to you by the Canadian Federation of Students in their submission of September 27. So, rather than rehearsing their arguments, we would merely add that the suggestion that such increases would not compromise access flies in the face of the evidence. For example, in the most recent poll jointly commissioned by the Association of Nova Scotia University Teachers, the Nova Scotia Government Employees Union, and the nevilogcanada casino Canadian Federation of Students, roughly one third of the respondents indicated that either they or an immediate family member had either been deterred from entering university by the cost, or forced to drop out as a result. Nor is Dr. O’Neill’s claim that tuition costs have no impact on access borne out by the experience in Newfoundland. There, significant reductions in tuition fees have led not only to increased enrolments, but also to a sharp increase in the number of students from Nova Scotia going there in search of an affordable education.
However , we would like to draw your attention to other aspects of the report which we see as no less problematic. In his meetings with our respective organizations, Dr. O’Neill indicated that his report would offer recommendations that would sustain and improve the quality of university education at reasonable cost, yet the thrust of the report is almost exclusively about cost-cutting. Indeed, it is difficult to see how some of the report’s recommendations for slashing programs, increasing fees, and the merger of wholly distinct institutions would do anything to sustain, let alone improve quality.
Certainly, the challenges posed by demographic trends over the foreseeable future, and their likely impact on enrolments, are real and need to be addressed. Yet what the report offers amounts to little more than a strategy for managing decline – or in some cases, actually precipitating it. Our recommendations that the government’s stated goal of making Nova Scotia “Canada’s University Capital” should involve support for, and investment in recruiting initiatives, both nationally and internationally, appear to have been completely ignored. Nor does the report make any meaningful recommendations regarding the equally crucial issue of retention – ensuring that students not only have access to university education, but stay there to complete it.
The report contemplates slashing programs at Cape Breton University and NSCAD, while pushing Mount Saint Vincent towards a merger with either Dalhousie or Saint Mary’s. It is hard to see how any of these recommendations would sustain the quality of education, let alone improve it. While it is true that NSCAD is facing serious financial difficulties – largely the result of irresponsible financial decisions taken by its administration in the past – gutting programs at an institution with a well-deserved international reputation is scarcely a remedy for addressing the possibility of declining enrolments.
As well, it is hard to see how any of the suggested mergers would be implemented. Dalhousie University, for example, does not have the space that would enable NSCAD to expand — and it is hard to see where it would be found at either Mount Saint Vincent University or Saint Mary’s, given that it would require the construction of new buildings to provide it.
With regard to Cape Breton and Mount Saint Vincent, it seems odd (to say the least) that these institutions should be singled out with recommendations for “internal restructuring” in the one case, and merger in the other, given that both are actually in excellent financial shape. In his briefings on the report, Dr O’Neill referred repeatedly to the fact that universities educate a disproportionate number of students from upper income families. Yet Cape Breton and Mount Saint universities are in fact the institutions that educate among the highest proportion of students from low income families. In addition, Cape Breton has the largest proportion of aboriginal students in the province, while Mount Saint Vincent has the highest proportion of non-traditional students. Undermining the quality of the education they provide hardly seems consistent with the core values upon which the present government was elected.
In any case, there is little evidence that these kinds of restructuring and mergers actually save money. This certainly does not appear to have been the case with the merger of Dalhousie and the Technical University of Nova Scotia in the 1990s, while in the case of the Halifax Regional Municipality one could hardly argue that this has led to improvements either in efficiency or cost-effectiveness.
Where there might be room for greater cost-effectiveness would be through addressing the issue of the ballooning administrative expenditures which many of those present at our meeting reported at their institutions. In its submission to Dr. O’Neill, ANSUT proposed that the implementation of consistent and transparent financial reporting procedures for Nova Scotia’s universities would make it clear where a disproportionate amount of operating expenditures was being devoted to administration, as opposed to teaching and research. Many of ANSUT’s members report significant increases in recent years in expenditures on administration, as opposed to instruction and research, while at Dalhousie the budget for administrative salaries more than doubled over the period 2005-2010.
But again, these proposals were ignored. Indeed, the report goes so far as to dismiss such concerns as a topic that “does not warrant a significant degree of further attention in this report” (72) — even though the report goes on to point out that expenditure on staff and administrators grew by roughly 54% over the period 1999-2009, as compared to 46% for faculty salaries (74) (which the report identifies as an area where salary demands need to be moderated).
What seems increasingly clear is that one of the principal functions of the report is to provide legitimacy for the continued under-funding of post-secondary education when the next Memorandum of Understanding is negotiated. Yet, even despite the progress made under the provisions of the current MOU, funding per student in Nova Scotia remains the lowest in Canada. If the recommendations of the O’Neill reported are acted on, legitimizing fiscal restraint on the government side, while letting tuition fees rise, the effect will simply be to reverse the progress that has been made under the terms of the current MOU.
What the report lacks is any kind of vision with regard to positive measures that might be taken to address the problems it identifies. The prospect of increasing participation rates, particularly among non-traditional students or various disadvantaged groups is dismissed as unfeasible. Nor is there any suggestion that increased investment in recruitment initiatives, whether internationally or in the rest of Canada, might build on the university system’s impressive track record in attracting out-of-province students. Rather, the report’s underlying assumption is that decline is inevitable — the irony being that many of its proposals would in fact serve to exacerbate, rather than address the problem.
ANSUT and the DFA would certainly endorse the government’s commitment to making Nova Scotia “Canada’s University Capital”. Indeed, we would welcome information on what steps are being undertaken to make this a reality. In our view, to do so must involve investment in universities as being crucial to ensuring the province’s future prosperity, rather than regarding them merely as a cost to be contained. Without such investment, the government’s commitment can only be seen as so much empty rhetoric.