On Campus

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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