Energy boom = 12,000 new college seats

N.B. plans driven by mega-projects, need for skilled workers

The New Brunswick’s government ambitious plan to create thousands of new college spaces is driven by an energy industry construction boom in the province, and the growing need for skilled workers to staff these projects, according to the minister responsible for the plan released yesterday.

Ed Doherty, the province’s minister of post-secondary education and training, said in an interview that New Brunswick’s strategy to transform its higher-education system was ambitious and that it would help pave the way to a self-sufficient economy by 2026.

“We are revamping the entire post-secondary education system in the province, with the idea of having an integrated system, a system that will respond quickly to the needs of industry, and also a system that responds to the needs of students,” he said.

Critics of the plan applaud the enrolment goals — 12,000 new college spaces and a new campus in Fredericton are set to be created by 2018 — but they say that students in the province won’t be able to afford the coveted spaces.

New Brunswick Student Alliance (NBSA) president Duncan Gallant said that students in the province carry an average debt load of $32,000, and many simply cannot afford to pursue higher education. The province’s post-secondary participation rate is below the national average.

“If New Brunswick has a goal to essentially be a hub to train workers for the Maritimes … that’s an ambitious goal and I think it is a noble one,” said Gallant. “If only they could implement and fund programs that would allow students to afford those expanding programs—that would be great.”

Twelve thousand new spaces in a province with a population of about 750,000 might sound like a tall order (as we noted yesterday, that’s equivalent to Ontario doubling the size of its college system and adding 200,000 new students), but Doherty said that colleges will have no trouble finding students to fill the spaces.

“We’re addressing the needs of the workforce. Our projections are that we certainly will need to train a large number of workers to meet the needs of the mega-projects that are coming up,” he said, referring to a number of recently launched or emerging energy projects in New Brunswick.

Doherty pointed to a new liquified natural gas (LNG) plant, pipeline, and potash mine, as well as a potential oil refinery and new nuclear plant, as examples of projects that will need skilled workers.

Tory post-secondary critic Margaret-Ann Blaney didn’t criticize the ambition of the plan to expand colleges, calling it absolutely necessary, but the former minister of training and development accused the government of falling behind on its own post-secondary promises.

“The government committed in the last election, which was close to two years ago now, to create 12,000 new seats,” she said. “In the past two years, the number of seats that has been created has really been negligible and they are really behind the 8-ball to meet the labour-force demand.”

Blaney added that the government’s five-year, $90-million commitment to the post-secondary strategy isn’t enough—capital costs are not at all accounted for, she said.

“The community-college network is old, the buildings are quite dilapidated—any expansion is certainly going to require some capital infusion,” she said.

Doherty admitted that capital investment was nowhere to be found in the report, which was a “first step” on the road to transformation.

“We now have a road map. We have developed some new vehicles to deliver post-secondary education,” he said.

Doherty had no specific estimates for the cost of much-needed capital investment.

Beyond expanding enrolment, the government will expand apprenticeship programs by 2,500 spaces over five years, make community colleges autonomous, and create Institutes of Applied Learning and Training and Consortia of Applied Learning and Training.

To address institutional accountability that many critics have said New Brunswick is missing, a new post-secondary education agency and presidents’ council will be created. Each post-secondary institution will also be required to prepare five-year business plans and report to the provincial legislature on an annual basis.

Doherty said it is natural to expect universities and colleges to be held accountable by the province’s elected officials.

“Taxpayers have the right to know how their tax dollars are being spent,” he said. “And their voice is through the elected representatives whose voices are heard in the legislature.”

Gallant said that the NBSA was happy with the requirement to report to the legislature.

“That is something we have been pushing for awhile,” said Gallant. “It means more accountability for tuition increases and where money is going.”

Blaney was less optimistic about the newly created agencies and councils.

“To create a whole bunch of different levels of bureaucracy is probably going to be cumbersome,” she said. “The (strategy) is very short on details as to how that is going to work.”