Nova Scotia universities should make cuts at the administrative level to deal with reduced government funding, says the head of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies.
The province signed a new three-year memorandum of understanding with universities Thursday that includes a three per cent funding cut for the coming year.
The Council of Nova Scotia University Presidents said Thursday that the funding cut will be difficult to cope with as there is little fat left in the university system.
“I don’t think they’ve be under any pressure in the last six or eight years to be in a position to say whether they’re fat or not, said AIMS president Charles Cirtwill. “Certainly the faculty associations think there’s some space in administration, and I suspect average Nova Scotians can look with (a) sceptical eye at the average faculty member and think there’s some fat there, too. I think they’ve got some space.”
He said universities could also look at cutting some departments or classes.
“Just because you’ve always had a department of this or a faculty of that doesn’t necessarily mean you still need to do that today,” he said.
He said merging of administrative services or even sharing facilities is another possible way to cut costs, and used as an example Dalhousie and Saint Mary’s universities in Halifax, which both need new arenas.
“What in the devil are (they both) doing looking at building two brand new rinks? If they need that facility, surely the teams could share it. There are lots of those kinds of opportunities.”
He said he likes the government’s approach of saying it can’t afford to keep spending as much on universities but leaving it to the institutions themselves to determine how to deal with the cut.
Chris Ferns, the president of the Association of Nova Scotia University Teachers, agreed that there is room to cut at the administration level, but would like the government to have some involvement in the way universities spend on administration costs.
“The problem is there is no mechanism currently for the government to enforce an appropriate amount of the budget to be spent on instruction and research. Regardless of the size of the envelope, administration still has carte blanche to hire new people in senior administration and increase their salaries, often well above the level paid to faculty and support staff.”
John Harker, chairman of the Council of Nova Scotia University Presidents, said finding savings at the administration level “is trickier than some people might assume.”
 “Each university, I’m quite sure, is at a different stage of having to make cost savings and adjustments.”
He said his institution, Cape Breton University, cut its operating budget by 30 per cent in 2008.
“Since then we have been extremely lean,” he said. “It may be that other universities, which did not face the necessity of doing that, ….. may have room to make adjustments.”
He said the situation can be different at different universities, but he’s sure all universities will work to maintain quality delivery of programming.
“If that means adjustments on staff size, maybe each one will have to consider if that’s doable,” he said. “I don’t know the individual financial situation of every university, but I do know that every president is always trying to make sure that they give the best value for whatever money is raised.”
He said there is no way the universities can avoid making difficult choices. He said they attract students from across Canada and around the world, which can only be done if they are quality-conscious. Bringing in those students from away helps them meet the needs of Nova Scotia students, Harker said.
He said he thinks there is “an appetite” among universities to look at whether there are common services that could be shared to save money.
“I think there’s an assumption (by government) that there are savings to be had there. I personally have been around long enough to be doubtful,” he said.
He said universities are already taking measures, such as group purchasing, and are considering whether there are some things that can be shared.
“I hope there are areas where there can be success, but governments seem to regard this as a way of instant delivery (of savings) and I don’t think it is,” he said.
Harker said merging schools is not something that universities have been contemplating for the future.