University future under scrutiny
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.