University mergers an option, says review head

Economist Tim O'Neill says he'll explore all options to make Nova Scotia's post-secondary system more efficient.

Mark Coffin is the Executive Director of the student advocacy group, ANSSA. He will be meeting with O'Neill on Monday to discuss the student agenda. Coffin says they will "play a big part in this discussion." Photo: Mark Coffin

Tim O'Neill's Post-Secondary Education Report will re-examine the possibility of amalgamating Nova Scotia universities.

O'Neill, the economist whom the province named to head its review into the post-secondary education system, says he will consider all options to ensure the highest efficiency and quality of education - including joining universities together.

"There have been suggestions for the restructuring for the university system," he says. "There are a range of ways that might be done - we could have a University of Nova Scotia where we put all universities under one umbrella, that idea certainly has been looked at in the past. We could...leave things exactly as they are. I don't know what the conclusions going to be, but I would suspect it would be somewhere in between those two."

Mark Coffin, executive director for the Alliance of Nova Scotia Student Associations (ANSSA), supports the review.


"They're going to look at all the options for integrating and making a more co-ordinated system approach, considering all options. Obviously amalgamation could be considered the extreme of integration but there are lesser extremes where universities simply co-operate more and spend money more efficiently to increase efficiency."

ANSSA was founded by the student unions of Acadia, Dalhousie, St. FX and St. Mary's University. It represents their collective interests.

O'Neill has worked with the government before in conducting financial reviews. He will now be assessing fiscal capacities of the province, financial conditions of universities and demographic and enrolment trends of Nova Scotia's post-secondary system.

The goal of the report is to ensure long-term sustainability despite declining youth population and tight funding.

Coffin has waited years for a review like this.

"It's something we've been looking for for about five years,'" says Coffin. "Our province had been putting a lot of money into post-secondary education without any strategic plan or goals for the system. The review that we want to see happen is a comprehensive review."

According to Coffin, the previous Tory government conducted a more specific consultation review, focusing on financial assistance. However, he's hoping the NDP will create a more comprehensive picture - encompassing all issues that pertain to the university community. Similar reviews have been conducted in seven other provinces, most recently Ontario and New Brunswick.

"These issues that are being addressed now have been front and centre for people within the higher-education sector before the review was happening," he says. "Our government is now asking questions and is open to listening to our responses. [As] opposed to us going into a room with our leaders and telling them what we want fixed, they're coming to us."

O'Neill will meet with ANSSA at least twice over the next few months.

Not all accept idea of review

While Coffin is optimistic about the results of the review, another student group isn't as enthusiastic.

Kaley Kennedy, from the Canadian Federation of Students, says the group doesn't want time and money spent on a review when it already has a clear picture of the problems .

"Everyone already knows the solutions. What we need right now is action, not another review," she said.

The federation is a national group that represents student unions from across Canada. In Nova Scotia, its members include the student unions from Cape Breton University , the University of King's College, Mount Saint Vincent University, NSCAD University and Université Sainte-Anne.

The Nova Scotia Chapter was recently involved in presenting 3,000 signatures to the province to petition high tuition fees and lobby for more grants with the provincial government.

Coffin says a more comprehensive review is essential to negotiations on the province's Memorandum of Understanding with the universities, which governs funding. He thinks the review will set the stage and allow both the university community and the province to be more informed about the issues.

"The Memorandum of Understanding is up for re-negotiation after the next academic year. This review will set the stage for the negotiations," he says. "Hopefully it will provide more financial stability for students. The long-term vision is key."

Time to complete not a luxury

O'Neill will have five months to complete the review. He will make presentations and recommendations to the province in mid-May and present his final report in June.

He says the tight timeframe means he won't be able to consult with as many stakeholders as he would hope.

"I'm a one-person commission with very limited numbers or resources available to do the background digging - that limits the capacity to do the travelling consultation process," he says.

He will be meeting with each university, along with student groups such as ANSSA. He says he can also take submissions from interested groups. Otherwise, he'll be drawing information from the department, past studies, statistics agencies and taking cues from studies other jurisdictions have conducted.

The terms of reference for the review only give general guidelines. Amalgamation, accessibility and affordability are not specifically mentioned. O'Neill says this will allow him to conduct the review without boundaries.

"The province itself has some significant fiscal challenges. Education in general is an area where the costs to the province are significant. Secondly, the demographic profile of the province is changing - it presents challenges," he says. "I suspect it was to ensure that there was a complete freedom to look at all of the issues and not feel hamstrung or constrained. I'm going to look at anything that's relevant."




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