In Brief: Charles Cirtwill, AIMS Executive Vice President, describes a new “bits & bytes” alternative to traditional university education in his presentation to the “What’s Next?” policy forum held in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Why not take Harvard University courses from the comfort of your home in Hubbards or earn your PhD from Princeton University while living in Pugwash?

That’s more than possible if we start thinking about post-secondary education outside of the proverbial box, said Charles Cirtwill of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a non-partisan, non-profit think-tank.

In fact, it’s already possible, he said Tuesday.

“For the most part, your physical presence on the Princeton campus is not required,” the executive vice-president of AIMS told reporters after his presentation inside the Sobey Building at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax.

“You’re required to have a certain residency . . . so you’d have to go for a year, but then the rest of your degree, you can finish from here.

“There are an increasing number of people who are taking, for example, PhDs remotely from the U.K. because they’ve gotten very good at this model of delivery.”

That model is what Mr. Cirtwill calls a “bits and bytes” alternative to traditional post-secondary schooling, which for the most part takes place in the “bricks and mortar” institutions that rely on students paying up and showing up.

During his talk, which was titled Post-Secondary Education in Nova Scotia: Time for Something Completely Different, he said it’s high time for higher learning to get a wake-up call.

Mr. Cirtwill said this is becoming increasingly important in Atlantic Canada as residents in our region age, population growth slows to a crawl and the subsequent economic realities sink in.

Indeed, he was quick to point to Statistics Canada data showing that the number of Nova Scotians in the labour market is dropping significantly, from 171 workers for every 100 non-workers in 2006 to an anticipated 118.8 workers 30 years later.

That number is not so far off the ratio of 117.9 working-age Africans for every 100 dependents on the Third World continent just eight years ago, according to United Nations statistics.

And that’s why it’s especially important to look at post-secondary education from a fresh perspective in Nova Scotia, which has 11 degree-granting institutions and is supposed to be known as the education province, he said.

Mr. Cirtwill said stakeholders must come together to figure out what they want for the future of post-secondary education here, which may mean fewer institutions and more higher-learning options — and taking “education to the streets.”

“This is the future and the future is today,” he said, pointing to distance education at Mount Saint Vincent University and course flexibility at the Nova Scotia Community College as prime examples of what can be done.

Some stakeholders are already discussing these subjects, including about 75 politicians, experts, students and Education Department representatives gathered at a Saint Mary’s lecture hall Tuesday.

They were there for a policy forum called What’s Next?, which served as the kickoff for a three-day conference for student groups across the country, including the Alliance of Nova Scotia Student Associations and the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations.

Although most agreed that post-secondary education has to change in Canada, not everyone agreed with Mr. Cirtwill’s suggestion of a “bits and bytes” model.

“I’m not sure I see the case for a radical redesign of institutions,” Alex Usher, director of Toronto-based Educational Policy Institute Canada, said after the forum.

“I do see the argument that ‘Yes, bachelor degrees are stuffy’ and ‘Yes, for some young people, the pull of a tight labour market is going to make it tougher to lure them into post-secondary,’ that you’re going to have to find ways to let them earn and learn at the same time. I get that.”

But Mr. Usher said that’s “a bigger deal” for colleges, calling universities important “finishing schools for our society.”

“They are the basic social network for people in professional positions and I just don’t see changing that.”

Noel Baldwin of the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation said these are exactly the sort of questions that need to be asked — and answered.

“There is no magic bullet. This is hard work and it’s messy work.”