Uni­ver­sity fu­ture un­der scru­tiny

Cape Breton Post - - COMMENT -

Fi­nance Min­is­ter Gra­ham Steele’s pre-bud­get road show and other sig­nals seem to sig­nify that the new gov­ern­ment thinks its big­gest task is to bal­ance the prov­ince’s books over the first term. While this mes­sag­ing is nec­es­sary for the time be­ing, it’s ac­tu­ally mis­lead­ing and prob­a­bly a dis­ser­vice to the gov­ern­ment it­self.

If this or any gov­ern­ment has a sense of pur­pose be­yond en­joy­ing the perks of power, it can­not be sim­ply to man­age Nova Sco­tia’s fi­nances. That is not a mis­sion. The big chal­lenge is to ad­vance the prov­ince in some fun­da­men­tal ways, pri­mar­ily by driv­ing change in its in­sti­tu­tions, and to do it in a fi­nan­cially re­spon­si­ble man­ner.

Viewed from this an­gle, bal­anc­ing the books is easy; bal­anc­ing the books while do­ing the other is the hard thing. Uni­ver­si­ties are a prime ex­am­ple.

The most re­cent re­port from the Mar­itime Prov­inces Higher Ed­u­ca­tion Com­mis­sion, tracking stu­dent pro­gres­sion, is but one of many on­go­ing at­tempts within both the uni­ver­sity sec­tor and gov­ern­ment to try to un­der­stand the chang­ing role of higher ed­u­ca­tion and what must be done to keep it rel­e­vant to stu­dents and to the so­ci­ety that both sup­ports the whole en­ter­prise and re­lies on it to be a key driver of so­cial and eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment.

Among the find­ings of the MPHEC study, some 40 per cent of stu­dents who en­rol at a Mar­itime uni­ver­sity don’t com­plete de­grees there. It’s not known how many fin­ish else­where, and it would be wrong to call an in­com­plete pro­gram a waste of time and money, but clearly this is not a good num­ber given the cost of higher ed­u­ca­tion and its im­por­tance to the fu­ture of the re­gion.

The rea­sons for this leak­age are com­plex and cer­tainly not all the fault of uni­ver­si­ties. The pub­lic school sys­tem and so­ci­ety at large play a role in send­ing young peo­ple into the sys­tem ill-pre­pared ei­ther aca­dem­i­cally or in terms of fo­cus and per­sis­tence.

Stu­dent or­ga­ni­za­tions quickly add that high cost and a still in­ad­e­quate fi­nan­cial sup­port sys­tem ac­count for a lot of the in­com­ple­tion and the length­en­ing time it’s tak­ing stu­dents to earn de­grees.

Mean­while, the new gov­ern­ment is also work­ing to get a grip on the fu­ture of uni­ver­si­ties in Nova Sco­tia. Premier Dar­rell Dex­ter has ap­pointed Syd­ney na­tive Tim O’Neill – a for­mer banker with broad pol­icy ex­pe­ri­ence, re­cently on the gov­ern­ment’s eco­nomic ad­vi­sory panel – to cook up a wide-rang­ing re­view of the uni­ver­sity sec­tor in very short or­der. The ex­ten­sive terms of ref­er­ence sound more like a royal com­mis­sion than a one-man project but O’Neill’s sup­posed to have his two re­ports in the premier’s hands in May and June.

Ad­vanc­ing the role of uni­ver­si­ties in the prov­ince within se­ri­ously lim­ited fi­nan­cial means may well be the tough­est cir­cle for this gov­ern­ment to square. While the spot­light is bound to fall on Hal­i­fax and its sev­eral uni­ver­si­ties, the fu­ture of Cape Bre­ton Uni­ver­sity is no less crit­i­cal to this re­gion. This im­por­tant is­sue de­serves close pub­lic at­ten­tion in the months ahead.

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