Until recently, the friendly rivalry between business-school officials at Dalhousie University and Saint Mary's University in Halifax resem-
bled brothers bickering about who has more muscle or respect. Then, in 1988, each school submitted plans to open a new building to
handle increased enrolment.
The government-appointed Nova Scotia Council on Higher Education opposed the idea, arguing that duplication would be both costly and inefficient. Later, provincial government officials, faced with a deficit of $200 million and dwindling revenues because of the recession, called for a more drastic alternative to cut costs. In its “Role and Planned Capacity Report,” released in May in conjunction with the Maritime Provinces Higher Education Commission, the council suggested that the business schools should consider merging. In fact, the government warned that if the two universities did not agree to share resources, it might make cuts itself. Some academics said that may mean closure of one of the schools.
The Halifax feud may signal the first of a series of bruising encounters between centres of higher education and provincial governments
determined to trim costs. To deal with funding and wage freezes, some politicians say that academic leaders will have to surrender longcherished autonomy and merge more programs or institutions. “The dollars are just not there,” said Ronald Giffin, Nova Scotia’s minister of advanced education and job training. Similar pressures are building in other provinces, including Ontario, Saskatchewan and New Brunswick. But Claude Lajeunesse, president of the Ottawa-based Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, says that institutions need more freedom to make internal cuts. “Governments control tuition and accessibility,” said Lajeunesse. “They should give universities the tools to make tough decisions.”
But some political analysts say that building bridges among the ivory towers will increase
efficiency in the entire system. In Ontario, there have already been tentative steps towards increasing co-operation among the province’s 23 community colleges and 22 university-level institutions. But the first testing ground for so-called rationalization is Nova Scotia, which, with 13 university-level institu-
tions to serve only 900,000 residents, has Canada’s largest per capita network of institutions of higher education.
As part of their review, provincial officials told the Council of Nova Scotia University Presidents to justify academic programs and recommend possible cuts. In their response to the government’s directives, released last month, the council’s 13 members prefaced their report by emphasizing that “no president enthusiastically endorses what follows.” The report then recounted several examples of procedures, either planned or under way, to streamline the system by sharing resources and co-ordinating programs. “We only had to address the issues raised in the study,” said James Perkin, council chairman and president of Acadia University in Wolfville. Added Saint Mary’s president Kenneth Ozmon: “I don’t
think our role is to help the government to coordinate the university system.”
For his part, Giffin said that he had expected the council’s response. “People want to defend their turf,” said Giffin, who added that he plans to announce additional mergers within the next few weeks. “Where the presidents could not reach agreement,” he said, “the government will just have to take the lead.”
Despite the presidents’ reluctance to propose cuts, policy experts say that the province’s review to eliminate duplication of programs and services is the best way to manage a university system that has become too large and too expensive for one of the country’s most highly taxed provinces. In the 1987-1988 fiscal year, Nova Scotia spent 4.5 per cent of the provincial budget on university education, compared with the national average of 3.7 per cent. But the province spent only $5,940 for
each of its 25,000 students—almost $600 less than the national average of $6,519. The federal government calculates funding partly on the basis of the provincial population and does not account for the 25 per cent of university spaces filled by out-of-province students, which some provincial officials claim leads to higher costs for local taxpayers. To reduce its deficit, the province has announced a university funding freeze for the next two years and an increase of only three per cent for 1994-1995. Politicians also imposed a freeze on all public-sector salaries and wages. And students will almost certainly face higher tuition fees, which, at an average of $2,165, are already among the highest in the country.
Student groups say that without more financial aid or input into what should be cut, they will be the chief casualties of rationalization. “Most
of us can’t afford to move to Halifax to study a certain program,” said Robert MacLean, a third-year business student and president of the students union at the Sydney-based University College of Cape Breton. “But students don’t always come first.” Indeed, provincial health ministers meeting in Banff, Alta., agreed last week to cut enrolment in medical schools by 10 per cent by the fall of 1993 as part of a strategy to trim health-care spending by reducing the number of doctors who can bill for services.
Despite protests against reducing or merging similar academic programs, the Nova Scotia university presidents agreed on the need to promote their individual strengths by concentrating on more specialized areas of study. “We have never tried to be everything to everybody,” said Elizabeth Parr-Johnston, president of Mount Saint Vincent University in Bedford,
which focuses on educating women, who make up 85 per cent of the student body. The council also cited other initiatives, including a consortium for human resource development to collaborate on continuing education and correspondence courses, a Nova Scotia faculty of graduate studies centred in Dalhousie and plans to rationalize teacher-education programs. But Perkin warned that universities “need time to re-allocate resources without affecting classroom performance.” Meanwhile, university critics charged that the council’s overall lack of direction was evidence of its acceptance of the status quo. “What do they want out of this?” asked Dima Utgoff, Wolfville-based president of the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services. “I still can’t identify their ultimate goal.” Indeed, critics say that the enthusiasm for internal review among other members of the university community is an indication that the
government should have assigned the mandate for change to them, rather than to the presidents. “Presidents are loyal to their universities first,” said John D’Orsay, executive director of the Nova Scotia Confederation of University Faculty Associations. “The process would be faster if it involved people whose chief concern was academic quality.” Karen Casey, a fourth-year business student and president of Mount Saint Vincent’s student union, also claimed that presidents should not oversee rationalization. She added: “You have to involve the people who are most affected. Everyone recognizes that there can be more efficiency.”
Provincial governments have recognized that they must allow universities to increase their income if the overall quality of education is to be maintained. Officials of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada point out that higher university costs across the
country have forced politicians to accept unpopular tuition increases. The Ontario government, for one, which spends an average of $8,550 a year on public secondary-school students but only $6,700 on each undergraduate, is permitting universities to raise fees next year by seven per cent to offset an increase of only one per cent in operating grants. But the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada reports that universities in Saskatchewan, which received grant increases of 3.5 per cent this year to $164 million, are increasing fees by as much as 50 per cent. Other provinces, including Newfoundland and Alberta, have charged students about 15 per cent more this year. “There has to be some more money,” said Saint Mary’s Ozmon. “In our case, there is no fat to trim.” Despite the difficulty of reaching a consensus because of their different priorities, some academic and government officials are working together to improve the
university system. Lajeunesse points to Quebec as a rare model of co-operation. “Both sides are putting the issues on the table,” he said. “It is an example of what can be done.” In Nova Scotia, officials insist that university heads will have to open parts of their ivory towers to negotiation. Said Giffin: “They have to co-operate in finding savings or we will have to impose it upon them.” Meanwhile, the governments of New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island have indirectly asked universities to submit details on their current programs and future plans by May. Said Timothy Andrew, chairman of the Fredericton-based Maritime Provinces Higher Education Commission: “We can’t afford to run a large number of similar programs.” For a system already struggling to meet increasing enrolments and demands for competitiveness, that could be a crippling blow.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.