A Response to Tim O’Neill’s Report on the University System In Nova Scotia (Part 1)

By Michael Manson
I begin by stating that in what follows, I am speaking for myself alone. I do not assume that the executive of the CBUFAUT or any or all members of the Association subscribe to my views. I should also note that I have no expertise in economic matters, and while acknowledging that most matters concerning post-secondary issues are obviously tied to economics and financing, either directly or indirectly, it is possible to address at least some of those issues without getting into the economics or financing side of things.

It is also important to see the report for what it is; an exercise in rationalization, despite what Dr. O’Neill might call it because some of the meatier parts of the report deal precisely with rationalization within what O’Neill terms the system. For those who have been teaching at the PSE level in Nova Scotia for some time, this may seem familiar. It certainly is to me, for during the almost 30 years I was on faculty at CBU, there have been previous exercises in many of the same matters as the report engages. For example, when the province decided to close the Atlantic Institute of Education back in the late seventies or early eighties; when it batted Université Ste-Anne about; and later when it dealt with the various Education programs in the province’s universities.

My interest is in what the report discusses about each institution, but I am most concerned in these remarks to address the report’s impact on Cape Breton University and especially on the members of the CBUFA.
Rather than trying to write something that treats the report’s various sections as an organic whole, I have decided to address each of those sections about which I want to comment in turn, as they appear in the report, with the exception of the fifth section that focuses on Research which I discuss before talking about Part Four where Dr. O’Neill details his arguments for policy options and goes after CBU as it currently exists.

In general, the report asks us to accept that the universities in Nova Scotia belong to a system, though it is difficult to see them in that way since each operates autonomously. A more accurate description might be to call the institutions an agglomeration. Thus, when, in the introductory material, Dr. O’Neill talks about the “looming system over-capacity,” he simply assumes that there is a system and, more to the point, does not define “over-capacity” except with the broadest possible strokes. Nonetheless, there are some positive observations and conclusions in the report such as the statement noting the inequity of a system “in which lower-income taxpayers now heavily subsidize university education for students from better-off families” (2). But those kinds of comments are rare, the report preferring to work from assumptions that universities ought to be more like businesses. One example of that bias appears in the summary statement Dr. O’Neill makes about the focus of the report: “The ultimate focus is on the options available for improving the Nova Scotia university system and making it more effective, efficient, and sustainable” (15); the buzz words point us to the biases without saying how such matters are to be measured. Since Dr. O’Neill is an economist who, before establishing his consulting firm, was an executive Vice-President at the Bank of Montreal, one might well expect that the weight of the report would be on quantitative issues, which it is. Rarely does it engage with qualitative aspects such as the value of the province’s universities in the area of their broad social benefits beyond the financial ones, a weakness to be sure.

The System Overview

For reasons best known to its author, the report tends to leave Acadia pretty much alone, particularly when it gets to its recommendations on individual institutions. It is worth noting here, however, that in 2008-09, Acadia had 684 more students than did CBU, (figure 2.1 p20), while Acadia’s operating grant was $9,195 million higher than CBU’s. The operating grant differential would be $27905454/3737= $7467 (Acadia) and $18759571/3053= $6145 (CBU) per student. A similar story would emerge if one examined the total expenditures for each institution. As I have said above, I claim no expertise in economics or, for that matter, financing and accounting. But it bears keeping these figures in mind when examining the report’s recommendation concerning the shape of CBU in the future and its ignoring Acadia altogether in such discussions.

Now, it is all but certain that the government will plead its financial difficulties, particularly its deficit and the like which may or may not be as severe as it says, depending on what its expenditure priorities are to be. Although I have no reason to mistrust their claims, we all know that governments always talk about those sorts of problems when they are contemplating reductions in spending or increase in taxes. It would have helped if the budget lines had been made available for examination before Dr. O’Neill finalized his report. Had they, he might have been able to offer some qualitative arguments for his recommendation in a context of fuller, more informed, views. A similar comment applies to the individual universities’ budgets which, later in the report, he says he had no access to and because there were time constraints (a phrase he uses more than once when potentially useful information), he could not consider before delivering his report.

One of the issues that the report examines closely is the debt students accumulate by borrowing money to attend university. I should state here my belief that tuition for undergraduate education ought to be free as it is in other countries. I know, however, that is not likely to happen either now or in the long term. And so my comments on participation rates and tuition and other costs are framed by what exists now, which is going to continue in one form or another because, in addition to the capitalism that governs policy in the province and the country, universities are increasingly operating as businesses, hardly a surprise to anyone working inside PSE, though some would prefer it to be otherwise.

Even though Dr. O’Neill’s observes that students in Nova Scotia graduate “with the highest debt levels in the country . . .” (33), he later claims that debt from tuitions and other expenses does not act as a disincentive to obtain a degree. Yet he later argues that one way to increase participation is to offer a higher level of student assistance with a greater part than is currently the case being non-repayable. There are, however, data by the CAUT indicating that the cost of PSE is, indeed, a deterrent because of foregone wages and accumulated debt. In any case, there is almost universal agreement that the benefits to the individual and to society outweigh the costs. But the report seems to minimize the impact of cost by emphasizing the dollar value of the benefits; he does not fully consider that willingness to participate depends, at least in part, on the cost which, given his concern for falling participation and projected enrolments, is odd at the very least. There is much more to be said about tuition rates, particularly when it comes to a consideration of the situation in Cape Breton, and I address some of the issues below. Here I simply reiterate what I have said above, that the report is lacking in qualitative data to support its claims concerning participation rates and tuition, and, more striking, that the report does not break down the rates among ethnic and mature student groups by institution before stating that universities should not rely on those groups for greater participation. My sense is that Native student enrolment numbers at CBU, for example, have markedly increased in the last 20 years, and though I am no longer at CBU, I have no reason to think that there has been a decrease that is sharper than the growth in Native student enrolment or in foreign student enrolment, or that the overall enrolment hasn’t at least remained constant or grown. As to the recruitment efforts to attract more foreign students to NS universities, and conceding that, as the report states, there are increased costs to the universities to provide services for “helping foreign students prepare for and acclimate themselves to a challenging linguistic and cultural environment,” there is no data to show that those costs outweigh the revenue that the students would provide. Furthermore, some universities, perhaps all of them, already have services in place, thus mitigating the cost.

Dr. O’Neill provides some interesting data dealing with population projections but without a fuller consideration of the growing recognition among the various groups he identifies of the importance of a university education in the information age. I would argue, yielding to his predilection for data, that in the immediate future if tuition increases are minimal and the economic recovery remains relatively flat or stale, then those who might not find work might choose to enter a university as they did in the ‘80s. And given the huge tuition increases in the UK, it would not be surprising to see an increase in applications for admission from there.
[part one of a three part series]

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