Posted January 11, 2013
When budgets have been balanced, and a credible plan made for phasing out the 2% increase in HST, the province can consider which areas should receive spending increases. Two leading candidates will be universities and the arts. Government should use the occasion to improve how the money is spent by tying increases to the achievement of strategic goals.
Universities have arguably been the hardest hit by spending cuts. They have experienced reductions in annual funding adding up to 10% over the last three years. In addition to the burden of inflationary pressures, this represents an effective reduction of perhaps 15%.
When government is able to restore funding increases, the wrong way to do it would be to provide the same percentage to each institution. Instead, government should use the opportunity to reward and encourage the institutions that improve outcomes for students and the usefulness of research. For example:
- Well administered student evaluations of teaching are an essential tool for identifying opportunities to improve faculty teaching skills. As well, a number of top Canadian universities routinely make the outcomes of these evaluations available to students when they are choosing courses. Ours should do the same.
- Duplication of courses is not a problem if they are full. But later year courses, particularly in esoteric fields, frequently have low numbers. The Halifax-based universities should combine efforts in courses with low enrollments. Even better, make them available by video to the rest of Nova Scotia. Initiatives of this type are already occurring for summer courses.
- Faculty agreements contain numerous clauses that prevent management from making sensible choices, such as shutting down programs whose enrolments are well below viable levels. Reward the universities that eliminate those clauses at the expense of those that do not.
These ideas require the agreement of faculty associations. But as time passes and they see other universities receive scarce funds they could have had, the incentive to make changes will become powerful.
Why should government spend money supporting the arts? Many artists are highly trained but are nevertheless poorly paid, in part because so many people aspire to be arts professionals. But that is not a sufficient argument for spending taxpayer money. The arts deserve support if they distinctively contribute to making Nova Scotia an exciting place to live and work. This can help attract and retain creative employees and employers.
Provincial grants to professional artists and arts organizations amount to about $6.8 million per year. In a province where total spending amounts to over $1 million per hour, this is the equivalent of about six hours spending per year. As with federal arts programs, the provincial amount has been frozen for at least four years. In a fragile economic environment where private sector sponsorships are harder to get, this means that the arts have had no adjustments for inflation.
Increasing support for the arts will hardly make a ripple in the budgetary pond, but it should be done thoughtfully. Rather than give a little more money to everyone the focus should be on giving bigger increases to the well-managed organizations that are achieving artistic excellence and building strong reputations in and for their communities.
Of course universities and the arts are not the only areas deserving of increased support. They were chosen to illustrate the notion that the opportunity to provide increases, when it arises, should be used to reward the achievement of specific goals. What these two areas have in common is their importance in making our communities fun and interesting, a surprisingly important factor in economic development.
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