In a story by the Telegraph-Journal’s John Chilibeck, John Williamson argues against further subsidies to higher education. On the issue, Williamson doubts that governments “are prepared to cut in one area to hand more money to universities, particularly when the biggest beneficiaries of a university education are the students themselves.”

FREDERICTON • New Brunswick’s dismal graduation rates put it at a competitive disadvantage and should be addressed through lower tuition rates and more public money for universities, says a faculty group.

The Federation of New Brunswick Faculty Associations wants Brian Gallant’s Liberal government to reinvest in the universities, something it believes would help drive future enrolment.

The group that speaks on behalf of unionized professors, researchers and librarians met privately with politicians of all stripes in Fredericton Thursday to warn them about prevailing trends.

“We have the lowest graduation rates in Canada – New Brunswick is in last place, tied with Newfoundland,” said Jean Sauvageau, the federation president in an interview shortly after talking to the Liberal caucus in the legislature. “This is 2016. The way the economy works is you have to have education first. Our concern is this government is not doing anything to improve the situation.”

Statistics Canada latest report on education, issued Tuesday, showed only 21 per cent of New Brunswickers between ages 25 and 64 have a university degree, below the national average of 28 percent. Among the wealthiest countries, the average is also 28 per cent.

Gallant’s government has said education is one of its cornerstones for turning around a sluggish economy and routinely boasts it is spending record amounts on childhood education. When the legislature resumed Tuesday, the premier held a press conference, flanked by most of his 26-member caucus, to talk about the smart province fund, which will include $250 million in new spending over the next three years for education initiatives.

The budget in February also announced $14.5 million in new spending to help low-income university students pay tuition, a measure Sauvageau supports, though he wants to hear more details on how it will work.

John Williamson, the Cice President of Research at the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, agrees that higher education should form a cornerstone for the economy, but he doesn’t like the federation’s solutions.

“The faculties and administrations need to look at their own expenses and costs, and not simply believe that taxpayers should fund these increases without any sense of financial accountability,” he said in an interview.

Sauvageau said two main factors convince young people to go to a university – if their parents went and if they can afford to go. Given New Brunswick’s low level of graduates historically, it’s unlikely it will boost enrolment numbers by counting on role models. That’s why it’s crucial, Sauvageau said, for the government to ensure tuition is affordable and the education is top quality.

“Dozens of countries around the world offer free tuition, Germany does it, Mexico, Poland, Mauritius. Within Canada, Quebec and Newfoundland have gone about this very differently, but in New Brunswick high tuition is still the norm.”

He said the province could find more money to fund the universities by taxing businesses more. The corporate tax rate is being raised from 12 to 14 per cent this year, but Sauvageau believes it should be higher.

Again, Williamson disagreed, arguing taxation levels were already too high and risked damaging the economy.

“And I’m not sure if governments are prepared to cut in one area to hand more money to universities, particularly when the biggest beneficiaries of a university education are the students themselves. There’s an accommodation here between the government providing some support and students themselves paying for some of the costs because they benefit in terms of higher salaries for the rest of their working lives.”