A Response to Tim O’Neill’s Report on the University System In Nova Scotia (Part 2)

By Michael Manson
Research, Technology Transfer, and Commercialization
The section of the report that deals with research opens with what is at best a myopic statement: “the gains to society, at least those that can be quantified, from teaching accrue in large measure to those who receive it and only a portion of the benefits may be argued to be spillovers to society at large” (137).
In general, the report privileges applied over basic research, what Dr. O’Neill refers to as curiosity-driven research, and appears to favour research that can be commercialized. Thus, he pays little more than lip service to research in the humanities particularly, while giving the social sciences a slightly firmer nod of approval.

What he does not account for, what seems fundamental to any understanding of research, is that the basic research often lays the groundwork for the kinds of research he underscores. Further, researchers have to be taught and trained, the beginnings of which often occur in the labs and classrooms in undergraduate courses. As for the research done in the humanities and social sciences, although the report acknowledges that it exists, it does not accord it the same value as other research. I would argue that research in those areas is fundamental to our understanding of society in concrete ways, that disciplines in these fields address matters such as what it is to be human and creative and how humans behave in society. Without such foci in research, how would the potential researchers who produce the kinds of researchers Dr. O’Neill discusses be thoughtful, critical people who know not only when but how to challenge the common wisdom and received opinions of the world in which they live and be prompted to engage in research that changes those things. Dr. O’Neill’s statement seems to me, quite bluntly, to be nonsense.

Tied to that is a citation index as a measure of research quality. His assumption that “higher quality” (141) research tends to be cited more often is not necessarily true. As we know, there are journals that are viewed as outstanding by members of a discipline such as PMLA in English literature (I use that example since it’s in the discipline from which I came). While there is no doubt about the importance of that journal, it tends to publish articles that are “sexy,” articles that are done from a particular perspective that happens to be in vogue at the time. Nonetheless, there is research that may not be accepted by such journals and thus cited, yet is valuable all the same because it provides new insights or creates knowledge, as the current talk about teaching goes.

The report goes on to discuss the transfer of knowledge and commercialization of research. In small institutions like CBU, with their limited budgets along with limited space and access to high tech and costly equipment, that type of research is often difficult, to say the least. And, as I said, above, the discussion in that section of the report deals with commercialization which ignores other, equally valuable, research. That is, of course, consistent with Dr. O’Neill’s bias.

Policy Options to Consider
(a) Tuition Fees and Student Assistance
Despite his claim that tuition and other costs are “modest,” (2), Dr. O’Neill provides no qualitative data to support the claim. In fact, when the report turns to student debt, he notes that the average debt in the province “at the time of repayment, has increased from $7,660 to $24,387, an increase of 218 per cent” (33). Since tuition is no small part of students’ debt, I find it hard to believe that tuition does not act as a greater disincentive than the report claims. And in the section that discusses the outlook for the universities, as he turns to enrolment levels, Dr. O’Neill concedes that projections of “variations in tuition fees are assumed not to affect enrolment levels” (53).

There is much to be said about tuition in the province and at CBU in particular. Clearly, in an area of the province with chronic under- or unemployment and with an economy that is static or growing at a snail’s pace if at all, the impact of tuition cannot be underestimated. The report cites studies that have been done that support Dr. O’Neill’s beliefs concerning tuition and other costs. Studies by Frenette and by Berger and Moss, both done in 2007, point out that factors such as parents’ education, reading scores, and GPA count to a significantly greater degree than do financial factors. Clearly GPA will influence a decision about applying for entrance to a university. And parents’ education plays a role not just in attitudes to PSE. But things like reading scores depend not only on the public schools, but on whether kids read at home. GPA cannot be considered in isolation from other factors. And since some of the elements of what kids are interested in and do depends on family income, it seems reasonable to link the economic situation in the industrial area of Cape Breton, at least, to those other factors which, in turn, are ultimately not isolated from cost.
To be fair, in this section of the report, Dr. O’Neill is talking primarily about tuition. But he does address other costs that, he says, impact the cost more than does tuition. Clothing, food, and personal expenses constitute more than half the cost. Those things, however, remain pretty much constant whether or not the potential student is living at home. The major factor that is absent from his list is housing. That is undoubtedly as much in play as is tuition, and if the potential student can live at home, rather than in residence or an apartment, that element in minimized. For those living in Cape Breton, then, the thought of having to pay up front or with loans to meet the cost of attending a university becomes prohibitive. That is one of the major reasons that what is now CBU began its existence in the first place as a satellite of St. F.X. and then evolved into a stand-alone institution. I don’t find anywhere in the report anything that has asked people whether they would be able to send their kids away to school if CBU were to disappear, not do I see anything that asks the students whether they’d be able to go away under a similar condition.
Now, I am decidedly not suggesting that parents are not doing the best for their kids that they can. But all parents have to make choices, and if the choice is between going to university and undertaking what must be for many parents and potential students an incredible debt in the face of the employment problems, it is entirely understandable for people to choose not to undertake that burden. What is needed, and to his credit, is one of the recommendations Dr. O’Neill makes, is to improve the student assistance program (a little more on this below). But that is not enough to offset the impact of tuition and other costs. Now, Dr. O’Neill argues that future employment earnings must also be part of the equation when considering the outlay for participation in PSE. I would argue, however, that to calculate that benefit simply on the basis of lifetime earnings ignores two important factors: one’s lifetime earnings do not hit their ceiling until relatively late in one’s career, and starting salaries are relatively low and remain so for at least half of one’s career, even when increases come into play; the debt one incurs, has a huge impact on an individual for quite a while even when one is employed. That is not something that people simply ignore. Thus, his recommendation that tuition fees be allowed to rise may do more for the government’s pocketbook that it will for students, even if a part of the tuition is used for student assistance. On the surface, that may seem to go at least some way towards justifying the increase. But I wonder whether deregulating tuition fees won’t, in the longer term, cause them to become even more of a disincentive than they already are and lead to a PSE for wealthier people at the expense of those with lower household incomes, thereby creating an even greater divide between social classes.

(b) Financial Assistance
The report clearly states that Nova Scotia is the least affordable province in which to attend university. The net out-of-pocket costs/income are $17.9% which is markedly higher than the next highest province, and the median household income is ranked 8th of all the provinces. It is likely even lower in Cape Breton than on the mainland. Is it any wonder, then, that students in the province, and especially in Cape Breton, have to consider long and hard before deciding to apply? But on this issue, O’Neill’s argument and recommendations are somewhat helpful. If, as he says, the cap on assistance is removed and the assessment of needs and resources is done fairly and in a straight up manner, the debt load can be offset, especially if the non-repayable portion is raised. In addition, the recommendation to cap the level of debt a student can incur may help to partially, at least, offset the increase in costs. Having said that, I remained convinced that potential students from Cape Breton are going to be facing an even more troublesome dilemma should the government accept Dr. O’Neill’s suggestion concerning tuition. And for families who are already at a disadvantage economically, the dilemma may well lead to a rejection of the option to participate.

Government Funding
As I stated at the outset, I do not have the knowledge, let alone the expertise, to assess the report’s discussion of issues like the funding formula. That having been said, the section on funding does make some observations that bear examination. One such issue is that of the integration or sharing of some of the purchasing and some administrative functions that are currently done separately by each institution. For example, several years ago, there was talk of creating a central admissions office such as exists in Ontario. The idea was scrapped in the face of opposition from the universities. Why it shouldn’t or couldn’t work in Nova Scotia remains unclear. Certainly, it would save money for all the universities. A second point Dr. O’Neill makes is that the province has a student/teacher ratio that is well-below the national average. His point seems to be that the ratio is a negative, costing money that could be better spent were the ratio to be increased. I disagree. A low student/teacher ratio contributes to potentially more effective teaching and improves the probability of students being able to meet with their professors face to face which also enhances educational quality.
[part two of a three part series]

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