University Funding

Politicians feel accountable to voters for the money they spend, especially in years, such as this one, when they are making tough budget choices. In the current year taxpayers will contribute $376 million toward university budgets, now growing at 1% per year after big cuts by the NDP. For that money it is reasonable to expect universities to produce useful research and education.

Atlantic Canada’s universities are under serious demographic threat. The number of students graduating from Maritime high schools is decreasing every year, so just to maintain level enrolments our universities have to attract growing numbers from other provinces and countries. More than half of Dalhousie’s students are from outside Nova Scotia.

The tuition rates for foreign students roughly cover the cost of their education. Together with living and other expenses each student spends perhaps $100,000 on local goods and services over a four year period—a terrific economic contribution.

Nova Scotian students, and to a lesser extent other Canadians, are subsidized by the $376 million from the province’s taxpayers. Together with tuitions this pays for faculty time teaching and doing research. What is the return?

University research makes direct contributions to  areas such as blueberry and grape cultivation, aquaculture, public policy, understanding our ecosystems, and many others. Strong research programs at our teaching hospitals help us to attract first class clinicians, and considerable external funding for research programs. The center of excellence in ocean sciences has received major national and international research grants. But not all research areas are equally valuable to the province.

Likewise graduates in medicine and other health professions, law, engineering and architecture, computer science, ocean sciences, business programs, and agriculture have reasonable prospects of finding related employment in the province. That is less true for some other graduates.

As part of the decision to provide funding the new Act enables the Minister of Labour and Advanced Education to require each university to reach agreement on the outcomes the university is expected to achieve. These are to show how the university will contribute to the social and economic development of the province.

Universities are also expected to provide reports on their finances and projections of future years. Those that anticipate financial distress can cause labour agreements to be frozen in place while they work out a revitalization plan with the government, consistent with the agreed outcomes. The notion is to implement remediation measures before the situation becomes desperate.

These all sound like reasonable expectations of government in its stewardship of $376 million. But the legislation is not well thought out.

  1. The language of the act could allow government to become quite prescriptive about research. What matters is relevancy, not whether a research project supports government’s goals. It is fine to welcome research on making aquaculture more productive, but academics should be equally supported in scholarly investigation of potential risks to the environment. How does that get protected?
  2. Unions are allowed to contribute thoughts to the revitalization process but have no decision-making role. Once the revitalization plan is approved the freeze on labour agreements ends, which may unleash pent up frustration. A number of the faculty bargaining agreements stipulate a bizarrely intrusive and protracted role for unions into management decision making when the university is experiencing “financial exigency.” This could both add considerable time to the process and prevent implementation of the agreement reached by the university and the province.
  3. An outcome which should deeply interest the province is whether graduates find good employment in the province. Yet universities (unlike NSCC) collect no data on the vocational outcomes of their graduates. It should be required. Doing so might confirm, for example, that very few of each year’s 400+ education graduates find employment as teachers in Nova Scotia. 
  4. The threat in the legislation is that funding will be withheld if universities fail to file a satisfactory plan, or fail to follow it. But this somehow seems unlikely. Will a university be penalized because is a faculty union will not ratify an agreement which it did not negotiate? Confronted with the data on unemployed teaching graduates, will government be willing to tell Sydney, Wolfville, or Antigonish that they need to discontinue those programs? If not, the Act’s requirements become mere suggestions.

Universities understand their need to contribute to the province’s economic and social fabric. They can support the Act’s goals of accountability and sustainability. That can be done without threatening operational autonomy and academic freedom.

It is reasonable for the province to measure how graduates from different programs do in the job market, and to favour the best performing programs with better funding. It is reasonable that some of the province’s funding be used to sponsor research in areas of greatest provincial relevance.

But the wording of the act, slightly amended on April 30, remains far too broad. The Act expects the university to sign “(a) a statement establishing the outcomes, as agreed between the university and the Minister, that support the social and economic priorities of the Government; (b) the university’s plan to achieve the identified outcomes…”

Taken literally that suggests that the university should take its cues from the election platform of the government of the day. Suppose a government wants to promote larger families, increase urbanization, allow uranium mining, or ban aquaculture. Is the university expected to suppress teaching and research that points in another direction?

The legislation is needlessly threatening. Government should take a step back and work with universities to more tightly define its intentions.

Disclosure: The author is a member of the Board at Dalhousie. The opinions in this article are those of the author and do not speak for the university.

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