As the provincial government prepares to develop a long-term funding agreement with its four public universities, one observer has a warning: don’t follow Nova Scotia’s example.

New Brunswick’s neighbour tried to do the same six years ago, but Charles Cirtwill, president of the Atlantic Institute of Market Studies, said two subsequent deals have led to even more fiscal challenges.

“I think you can use the Nova Scotia example as the ‘what not to do,'” the head of the Halifax-based think-tank said, pointing to dramatically higher costs than existed in 2004.

“We have average wage increases for university faculty that ran somewhere between two and three – and in certain instances four – times the rate of inflation. You have capital building that we have not seen in a generation.”

The New Brunswick government announced recently it would work with universities to develop a four-year funding model, to come into effect in the 2012-13 fiscal year.

The framework will include a tuition schedule and a similar model will also be developed for community colleges.

University presidents responded favourably to the plan, which doesn’t surprise Cirtwill.

He said stable funding is a worthy goal if approached responsibly, adding universities shouldn’t be consulted as stakeholders by the government.

“They should decide how much they can afford to spend and then tell them,” especially given the fiscal state of the province, he said.

“Universities aren’t a stakeholder, they’re a supplier. They sell a product to the province and to the people of New Brunswick.”

Cirtwill said since funding was based on enrolment and the institutions’ average costs, Nova Scotia’s 11 universities had an interest in seeing their costs rise.

“In other words, in order to get more money, all they had to do was spend more,” he said.

As a result, he argued, the agreements failed to meet the fundamental goal of increasing student accessibility, with insufficient money going to those who use the system.

To hammer that point home, about 2,000 university students recently marched on the provincial legislature in downtown Halifax.

The protest came a day after the NDP government announced its next budget will include a four per cent funding reduction of about $14 million. In addition, tuition increases will be capped at three per cent a year. An expiring three-year tuition freeze had seen Nova Scotia’s rates – previously the highest in Canada – drop to third below Ontario and New Brunswick.

“Students will be expected to pay more into a system that continues to be underfunded by government,” said Rob LeForte, chairman of the Alliance of Nova Scotia Student Associations.

“Nova Scotia will continue to have the lowest per-student funding in Canada.”

Student groups in New Brunswick have also expressed concern about the future of tuition levels despite the promise of a four-year schedule. Rates have been frozen in the province for three years.

But Peter Halpin, executive director of the Association of Atlantic Universities, said universities, government and students have all benefited from the funding model in Nova Scotia.

“I think it’s very valuable from a planning point of view. You know exactly what your revenues are going to be and what your expenses are going to be,” he said.

Halpin said the Nova Scotia funding formula was agreed to through a collaborative process between government and the universities.

“It was very much both parties being at the table and working through it in a very serious, very detailed manner,” he said.

“If there were certain costs that the government had questions about.”

But Cirtwill said New Brunswick can’t afford the funding increases that Nova Scotia has seen in recent years. He recommended freezing funding at the current level for one year, then allowing an increase only equal to inflation for the next three.

“Take a serious look at your student assistance and adjust it so that more money gets into the hands of the kids that need it most,” he said.