Report seeks to gut Nova Scotia universities

The O’Neill Report needs to go in a drawer right now.

Nova Scotians have lots to be proud of: stunning natural vistas, rich cultural heritage, and a network of universities that, considering the population, is unmatched in Canada.

That last one is under attack, and the first blast of the trumpet was sounded on Friday.

Tim O’Neill’s long-awaited report on Nova Scotia’s university system is out, and rather than offering ways to sustain or enhance one of the province’s social and economic advantages, it reaches for the same old hammer of economists and managers alike: cut, cut, cut.

O’Neill couches his recommendations in conditional phrases and other weasel words, but the pattern quickly becomes clear: never mind the long term consequences, let’s save money where we can right now. Indeed, that principle, long term pain for short term gain, is specifically invoked in his discussion of the idea of a University of Halifax system, an idea that other experts cite as the best opportunity to really save:

While the concept of a University of Halifax is both more logical and more appealing than that of a University of Nova Scotia, it is too large a consolidation effort to contemplate, at least in the current environment. For a government faced with having to impose fiscal restraint, the transition costs for a merger of six institutions would be far too high to seriously contemplate.

A solution that is logical and effective? Never mind that — there’s an election in a few years.

Though the report pretends its recommended changes are modest, they, could, if fully implemented, and adjusting for the bureaucratese in which the document is written,  include:

1.Merge the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design with Dalhousie

2. Merge the Nova Scotia Agricultural College with Dal and lower funding accordingly.

3. Merge Mount Saint Vincent University with Dal or St Mary’s

4. Make Cape Breton University a technical/transfer college

5. Move Universite Sainte Anne to Halifax

6. Drastically increase tuitions

Modest changes? Hardly. O’Neill’s report would see six institutions change dramatically and affect every single student in the province.

Many of these changes involve mergers which would, one hopes, see most programs remain in tact. The exception is that of Cape Breton University. As a Cape Breton native, O’Neill surely knows that returning higher education on the island to the bad old days of a technical school and a transfer college would be met with fierce opposition, so he pretends not to say it even as he proposes it:

With respect to how to reduce its offerings, CBU could consider eliminating whole programs. An alternative approach would be to eliminate four-year degrees in those areas where it may determine it has more limited capacity to compete. Instead, the first two years of the programs would be offered and arrangements made with other universities to accept the students who have completed these two years into the balance of a four-year degree program. However, this is not a proposal that CBU turn back the clock to its former status as a two-year institution or a junior college. It would still offer degrees, but in a more limited number of areas.

This is classic Orwellian Newspeak. O’Neill  proposes canceling programs, turning programs into 2-year transfer options, and then washes his hands by claiming he does not want to “turn back the clock.” But of course, a college with limited degree options and transfer programs was exactly what Cape Breton had in the early 1970s before the formation of what was then UCCB. So O’Neill doesn’t want to turn back the clock; he just wants to go back in time.

Remember that CBU already offers a limited number of offerings as it is: many programs available as 4-year degrees elsewhere (Physics, Classics, Geography, French, Engineering to name just a few) are not available at CBU. To pretend that CBU could continue to call itself a university with significant program reductions at this point is disingenuous. At best, it would survive as a polytechnic school, though O’Neill probably avoids that word, since something similar was proposed for New Brunswick a few years ago and had to be abandoned after being met with public outrage. If O’Neill is seriously maintaining that there should be no genuine university to serve Nova Scotia’s second largest population centre, which he certainly is, he should say so plainly.

These recommendations are particularly egregious since O’Neill is proposing drastically reducing access to university programs in Nova Scotia while at the same time arguing that they should cost students much more. And this after Nova Scotians have already had their taxes raised, taxes that I thought were to help pay for things like education. And what consultant proposed that tax hike? The very same Tim O’Neill.

What we need are thinkers who understand how important universities are to a province and make policy suggestions accordingly. We need more views like this:

Nova Scotia benefits from a strong university system that delivers quality teaching to its students along with research that enhances the environment for innovation. Universities also improve the economic, social and cultural life of the communities in which they operate. [We need] to identify policy options which ensure the long-term viability of the university sector.

And what enlightened observer said that? That’s the very same Tim O’Neill, before he wrote the report. Apparently O’Neill has a strange idea about what “long term” means and what “viability” means. Of course, he didn’t say long term viability for everyone.

It’s worth noting that the government’s own release on the report ignores the biggest potential changes such as eviscerating CBU. One hopes that this is because they know they are non-starters. Put another way, at some point, Nova Scotia’s NDP are going to have to start acting like New Democrats.

To be sure, my own view is that of one person and is necessarily biased. But if bias is the issue, why is so much weight being placed on the necessarily biased view of one bank executive?

I maintain that smart public policy means investing in the long term and playing to one’s strengths. The Nova Scotia university system is one of the province’s strong points. It should be understood as an indispensable component of future prosperity, not a series of bank accounts to be tidied up or emptied. That approach is nothing to be proud of.




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Report seeks to gut Nova Scotia universities

  1. I am in full agreement with this, Todd. In the end, this is just an analogue to Bob Rae’s report a few years ago.

  2. Thanks Todd. Well said. The NDP has enjoyed a lot of support from faculty and students in the Nova Scotia University Community. They’ll be throwing all of that support away if they foolishly take Mr. O’Neill’s advice on how to impoverish Nova Scotia’s Universities.

  3. It’s so easy for the NDP to co-opt student organizations and unions, faculty associations, etc. to the same agenda that they would militantly oppose if it happened under any party.

    Trust me, I live in Manitoba

    But to be fair, re: Josh and Abe, Bob Rae may be a jackass, but I think that since he’s a Liberal now, the NDP doesn’t have to take the blame for his jackassery anymore.

  4. This commentary is riddled with errors and it is hard to take seriously opinions based on such infelicities. Just one example: The report does NOT proposed moving Ste. Anne to Halifax. The francophone university, which is located (appropriately) on the so-called French Shore, already has some presence in Halifax and O’Neill suggests they might profitably be expanded. And so on and so on, through the various other mistakes.

    • Pat, as I explain in the piece, the report is written in indirect language deliberately designed to conceal its precise meaning, so I have tried to correct for that to make its implications plain, and there is some interpretation there. I give a detailed example in the case of CBU to show how O’Neill pretends to say one thing while quietly arguing for another. I also linked to the actual report so readers can decide for themselves whether my interpretation is reasonable.

      As for Sainte Anne, what O’Neill actually says is

      “Université Sainte-Anne is one of the most heavily subsidized and therefore most costly institutions from the perspective of the government funding required to sustain the university. It has a very small enrolment that is clearly at risk of continuing to decline, at least at the Church Point campus, and it has a limited and declining college population. The university lacks any obvious merger candidate in Nova Scotia, although it has been suggested that it merge in some form with Université de Moncton. There are too many impediments to render this option viable. The most attractive alternative for Sainte-Anne could be a restructuring of its offerings by expanding its programs in the Halifax Region to part-time students who are older adults.
      As the Université Sainte-Anne is the only post-secondary institution serving francophone students in Nova Scotia, the government may well choose to maintain the significant subsidization of the main campus programs. However, an increased focus on the Halifax programs could prove an effective way to enhance the financial viability of the university.”

      Now what does that mean? Well, he does not come right out and say that it should be moved to Halifax, but he says that the university is really expensive where it is, that there are not enough students in Church Point to make that viable, that they already have operations in Halifax anyway, that the programs should be “restructured,” and that the Halifax operations should be their “focus.” Put it all together, and I think the implication is pretty clear.

  5. all this talk about Drastically increase tuitions… I don’t think he actually went to or finished his education. the cost of university is already holding back 50% of the kids that are smart enough or wanting to go but because of the cost of tuition they can’t afford to go. Yes they can apply for loans but they always seem to come up with some bullshit excuse about how they should be able to afford it without a loan or grant,because there parents made 30k last year. If they are lucky enough to get to university on a loan, as soon as they are finished and before they get a job they are roughly $100,000.00 in debt,not a very good start to life.

  6. Merging the only school in the province that focuses on the right side of your brain, and focuses on training students to think innovativley and critically(NSCAD) into a school that will water it down to something un-recognizable, or severly offer the things that make it unique, is hardly keeping a diverse university community.

  7. I personally want to say that although I agree that not all of the information found within this article is 100% valid, I still find that the idea of suggesting that Université Sainte-Anne should merge with Université de Moncton or put the focus on its Halifax campus rather controversial. I also want to state that some of the research that was done must have been flawed because over the last five years, four have been years of growth as far as enrolment is concerned at Universté Sainte-Anne. In my opinion, the latter proves that the university is economically viable even if it is not located in an urban centre.

    I am a student at Université Sainte-Anne’s Church Point campus and I am proud to be studying in a francophone region. In fact, the university was founded so that francophone people could pursue their education in French, so why would you take the focus off of the francophone region surrounding the education at hand? Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea of having our four other campuses to serve francophone people across the province, even the one located in the Halifax area, but I worry that moving more of a focus towards building up the Halifax campus may cause problems for the preservation of Nova Scotia’s francophone heritage.

    My hometown is well-known for being part of a francophone region, but there are very few francophone people who still live there. Personally, my first language is English, but that of half of my family is French, and that is one of the reasons for which I have chosen to study in French. Nonetheless, the decline of the francophone population of Nova Scotia is reasoning enough that explains why changing Sainte-Anne’s focus to an anglophone region such as the HRM will not help. I understand that nothing says that Halifax will become the main campus, and that the report underlines mere suggestions, but I fear such actions will be taken and I can’t say that I approve.

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