In Brief: In this front page story in the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal, AIMS acting president Charles Cirtwill explains that universities in the region need to make changes if they are to survive the demographic shift. 

FREDERICTON – Worsening financial troubles at the University of New Brunswick’s Saint John campus are not mirrored at the province’s three other public universities – yet. But experts warn that UNB’s declining enrolment and revenue figures are ailments that will soon affect all local universities.

That fact, they contend, should prompt the Liberal government to muscle past public protest – and endorse unpopular changes suggested in a review of local post-secondary education. A recent memo sent to faculty and staff at UNB’s Saint John campus outlines growing fiscal pressures. It says a planned deficit of $780,000 could eventually grow to $3.2 million if left unchecked.

In the note, vice-president Kathy Hamer blames declining enrolment for the ballooning shortfall, and warns of future deficits and cost cutting in order to cope.

“The 2007-08 year is one of continuing financial challenge”_ and we expect that next year will also present significant issues,” she writes of the school’s $33-million budget. “The seriousness of our financial situation cannot be overstated.”

The school’s Fredericton campus expects a $1.7 million deficit in its $128 million budget this year. But those fiscal hardships are not being felt at the other publicly-funding universities in New Brunswick.

St. Thomas University in Fredericton expects to balance its $24-million budget this year. Officials say STU has never run a deficit and has no debt. The school also saw its first-year enrolment jump by 25 per cent (or 135 students) this year – the largest increase in Atlantic Canada.

At Mount Allison University in Sackville, enrolment is flat, but officials expect it to increase by a couple hundred students next year. The school, of 2,238 students, has a balanced budget ($35.6 million) this year and expects the same for 2008-09.

The Université de Moncton forecasts a deficit of $142,000 on its $95.3 million budget. However enrolment went up slightly this year, thanks to a bump in international students. Officials say the student population has jumped each year since 2000. It now sits at over 5,000 for the schools three campuses.

Dan Murray, UNB’s vice-president of finance, says his university faces hurdles different from the other institutions. Take the school’s focus on graduate courses for PhD and master’s students. They are much more costly, he said.

“We have more pressure because of the nature of our mission – we’re not only dealing with undergraduates, we’re dealing with graduate and research students,” Murray said. “We have more pressures to bear on us, so it’s a little more challenging for us.”

He also points to declining enrolment as a main culprit. The Saint John campus anticipated 170 fewer students this year, which would have marked a seven per cent dip. The actual number turned out to be 228, with the campus population now at 2,500. The Fredericton campus saw its student population down 150, to about 8,000. Such reversals will lead to multi-million dollar shortfalls if not dealt with, Murray said.

So, the university is looking to boost recruitment and is calling for an increase in funding from the province. Currently the school gets $90 million, or 55 per cent of its budget, from government. Taxpayers contribute a total of $180 million to the four public universities. Murray contends the problems at his school are similar to those felt elsewhere.

The shared dilemmas: government funding is not rising with cost increases, and the 18-24 year-old demographic is shrinking each year. That means fewer potential students.

Charles Cirtwill supports Murray’s claim and says all four schools will soon feel the full brunt of the demographic shift.

“I wouldn’t necessarily characterize UNB Saint John as doing remarkably worse than everybody else,” said Cirtwill, acting president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a Halifax-based think tank.

“(They’re) all pretty much treading water.”

Still, Cirtwill thinks the fiscal struggles reinforce a need for change, like transforming UNBSJ into a polytechnic institute.

A review of New Brunswick post-secondary education called for university campuses in Saint John, Edmundston and Shippagan to be merged with community colleges, to form so-called polytechnic institutes. But mass protest caused the Liberal government to hand that report off for further review. A group made up of university presidents and community college principals will report back by February with new recommendations.

Cirtwill says people have wrongly assumed a polytechnic would simply be a glorified community college or trade school. In fact, he says, the goal is to create a world-class technical institution to attract outside students, like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“I don’t think any graduate of MIT holds their head down in shame for being embarrassed,” he said of protest against the idea.

“No one should think this is an aberration – that next year things are going to get better.

“The demographic treads are all worsening, which means this challenge is just going to get worse – and not just for UNBSJ, but for everybody else,” he continued.

“Everyone needs to take (the UNB case) as the warning sign that it is.”