By: Charles Cirtwill

Finally, someone is talking sense about Nova Scotia’s university system. Dr. Tim O’Neill’s report on the future prospects of the university system makes for some grim reading. He highlights projections we have all seen before: fewer potential students this year, next year and every year for the foreseeable future; peak enrolment many years in the past; a government simply unable to sustain recent spending increases because not only is the number of students falling, so is the number of taxpayers.

Yes, he says many things we have all heard or said before, but then he adds some conclusions and opinions that will surely result in fevered debate.

Universities are independent, he says, but that means the responsibility for saving them rests on their shoulders, not ours. They can’t spend like there is no tomorrow because if they do, there won’t be.

So O’Neill spends a lot of time on where universities can save money: sharing “back office” services, controlling the growth in staff and staff salaries/benefits; even mergers or at least formal associations between struggling institutions and their stronger cousins.

O’Neill reminds us that students benefit immensely from post-secondary education, to the tune of $750,000 over the course of a working lifetime, according to his figures. To O’Neill, that means if they benefit, then it is only fair that they pick up an appropriate share of the cost. So tuition freezes and caps should be reduced, indeed eliminated. Students should pay what the market will bear and, by the way, will likely get what they pay for into the bargain.

And yes, that means student assistance must increase as well. But O’Neill points out that it also means a bank teller should no longer subsidize the university education of the bank vice-president’s kids. Income-contingent assistance during and after your studies means more money for those who actually need it and no money for those who don’t.

That doesn’t mean students are on their own in O’Neill’s world. Society benefits from university education, too, and we should contribute a reliable, predictable share of the cost going forward. But what we can afford should drive the costs we cover, as opposed to the costs driving what we are asked to pay — a unique concept and one that is generally foreign in the university world. A world where if the cheque from taxpayers wasn’t big enough last year, you simply run to the nearest microphone to scare students, parents and faculty into lobbying for a bigger one next year.

And, by the way, if universities are going to be cashing big cheques from taxpayers going forward, O’Neill wants some real measures of success. Not how many books are in the library or how many professors you have on campus, but what happens to your graduates after they leave. Does what you teach them translate into jobs, investment, better lives for their families and a better future for their kids? If the government ignores all of his advice but this piece, we will be immeasurably further ahead than we have been.

Now, I have yet to tear through the report word by word, and I am sure there will be things in there that I don’t like. Indeed, I have already found two.

In the first instance, I quibble with the idea that IF, at some point in the future, we have more money, we should automatically spend more on universities. To me, universities need to earn both the money we give them and the money students give them. So, if we are going to create key performance indicators (KPI) for universities, why not tie at least some of the funds taxpayers give them annually to improvements on those KPI? I guarantee you, that is how students and parents will be deciding where their money goes.

And the second problem I have with this report really isn’t O’Neill’s fault — it was the government that decided this would be a university system report, not a post-secondary system report. The potential savings and revenue opportunities of closer collaboration, even a merger/takeover of some smaller universities by the NSCC (or vice versa), is not even explored. That is a real missed opportunity here.

But all in all, this report appears to actually apply some common sense to an obvious problem in need of urgent action. It isn’t often you can say that about a public-policy proposal in this province and I, for one, plan on enjoying it while it lasts.

Charles Cirtwill is president and CEO of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, an independent social and economic policy think tank based in Halifax.