Nathan White

Professors and teachers standing in front of empty classrooms.

That’s the worst-case scenario Charles Cirtwill envisions for New Brunswick’s post-secondary institutions if the system doesn’t change the way it operates.

“That’s not a good thing for anybody,” said Cirtwill, reacting to recent comments by University of New Brunswick president John McLaughlin.

In an editorial board meeting with the Telegraph-Journal Wednesday, McLaughlin said post-secondary education in the province needs to undergo dramatic change, becoming “smaller, better and different.”

Cirtwill, the acting president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, welcomed that type of attitude from a university president.

“I had a hard time not jumping up and down and screaming, ‘Amen!’ ” said Cirtwill, who is heading up the economic and social policy think tank in Brian Lee Crowley’s absence.

“It’s very nice to see a university president stepping up to the plate like this and using that kind of language.”

Cirtwill said New Brunswick is at a turning point. If the province sticks with the status quo, it will find itself with sub-par, under-funded educational institutions. But if it can successfully reinvent the system, New Brunswick could set the bar for the rest of the country.

“There’s an opportunity here, with a new government looking to make its mark, the private sector aggressively pursuing some options and post-secondary education looking at new options,” said Cirtwill. “Everything’s coming together for a perfect storm and New Brunswick has an opportunity to lead the way for the rest of us.”

Cirtwill said McLaughlin’s talk of closer co-operation with community colleges, government, the private sector and each other “makes abundant sense.”

He’d also like to see universities “take a serious look” at streamlining programs, perhaps cutting back on offering similar programs within the province, allowing schools to specialize in specific areas.

“Do we have too many institutions trying to serve too many students? Do we have too many programs?” asked Cirtwill. “With the demographic trends, we’ve got fewer students locally. Maybe it’s time to take a look at the programs we’re offering and start specializing.”

The demographic trends Cirtwill mentions were documented by Statistics Canada in a study released last month. That study showed the median age of New Brunswickers jumped to 40.8 in 2006 from 38.2 in 2001, the second-highest provincial leap in Canada. In 25 years, the province’s median age is projected to grow to 49.3 years.

New Brunswick is already seeing the impact of an aging population in reduced university enrolment numbers. The latest numbers from Statistics Canada, released Tuesday, showed the province had 2.7 per cent fewer students enrolled in 2004-05 than the previous year, while the country saw an increase of 2.1 per cent.

The decline was even more pronounced among full-time students, dropping by 3.3 per cent.

Robert Campbell, the newly installed president of Mount Allison University, said universities need to be prepared for the demographic challenge.

“There really is a very good chance there will be less (students enrolled) in five years and 10 years than now,” said Campbell.

He believes New Brunswick needs differentiated programs to position itself as an alternative to the rest of Canada.

But while he believes redundant, money-losing programs should be eliminated, Campbell doesn’t favour creating an entirely specialized post-secondary education environment that simply trains people for jobs.

Campbell, whose last post was at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., believes New Brunswick can duplicate that region’s success by making universities the centre of an “economic renaissance.”

The Kitchener-Waterloo area is best known for its technology sector, with Blackberry maker Research in Motion the flagship. Campbell credits a rich university presence for fostering the growth away from an industry-dependent economy.

“The two universities there attract talent, ideas and energy and played a fantastic role in the energizing of the Kitchener-Waterloo economy,” said Campbell. “There’s every reason why the university sector in New Brunswick can play a similar role.

“The economy is built on intelligence, brainpower and ideas as much as on stuff,” he said.

Campbell and other university presidents say they look forward to the formation of a post-secondary education commission.

At a meeting last month, Premier Shawn Graham gave the four university presidents and Ed Doherty, the minister responsible for post-secondary education, a few weeks to come up with “the template for what the commission’s mandate should be.”

McLaughlin said he expects to see the commission formed within a year.

Doherty said Thursday the government is seeking input from all universities and community colleges in the province.