New Brunswick Universities – are some changes needed?

As a follow-up to a previous post, I’d like to provide some more of my views on a possible re-alignment of universities in New Brunswick. Recent statements by politicians, newspaper editorials, and others have underlined the importance of research and development (R&D) to the future of the province. R&D is a source of innovative goods and services that can be exported globally and create high-wage jobs – something the province desperately needs. But how do we get more R&D investment in a province that is hard-pressed financially? In my opinion, we can get start down that road by re-designing the university system. But before we get to that, let’s look at some background information.

The Maritime Provinces Higher Education Commission (mphec.ca) provides data on student populations for all Maritime universities. Over the past decade, there has been a general downward trend in total (undergraduate and graduate) enrolment at New Brunswick universities. This trend can be seen in the chart below, where data for Université de Moncton (UDM – campuses at Moncton, Shippegan, and Edmundston combined), Mount Allison University (MTA), Saint Thomas University (STU), and the University of New Brunswick (UNB – Fredericton and Saint John campuses combined) are shown.

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Over this 10 year period, student numbers declined at UDM by four percent, at STU by 14%, and at UNB by 11%. MTA, by contrast, saw an increase of 2%. MTA has done very well in Macleans magazine university rankings, leading the ‘primarily undergraduate’ category of universities. That consistent performance might explain MTA’s enrolment growth and attractiveness to out-of-province students. STU and UDM have not done as well and are well down in the same rankings. Meanwhile, UNB has done relatively well in the ‘comprehensive’ category.

Demographic factors lead the MPHEC to predict significant declines in total university enrolment in coming years, with a loss of over 2500 students in NB by 2025. Why does that matter? Well, taxpayers have made significant investments in universities and students make significant investments in their education. The chart below shows actual ($$ Actual) and inflation-adjusted ($$ InflAdj – created using Statistics Canada’s CPI indicator for education in NB).

 

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The data show that university funding has remained fairly stable despite the decline in student numbers (increases during the 2007-2009 years were largely the result of ‘one-time’ grants used to offset funding declines in previous years). As student numbers fall and university budgets remain constant, the cost per student rises. There are several implications that follow:

1. Falling student numbers will lead some to question as to why significant cuts should not be made to university budgets.

2. Budget cuts that result will force universities to raise tuition fees significantly, or take measures to cut costs.

3. Cost-cutting may lead to either university-wide budget cuts and/or closure of unpopular or expensive programs. Recruitment of new staff to replace retiring staff may stall.

4. Governments might step in and decide to ‘save the system’ by ordering the closure of Faculties, or even certain institutions.

Perhaps we need a re-evaluation of what we expect from universities and use those revised expectations to help guide us to solutions. Over the past few decades, we have come to view universities as institutions whose main goal is to provide sufficient education/skills to our youth such that they can ‘escape’ from the low-paying jobs in this province and relocate to more prosperous regions. Economically-speaking, it seems to make little sense to use taxpayer dollars to educate young people only to have them leave in order to find work that matches their skills and interests. While parents might benefit from having their sons and daughters find good jobs (even if it means relocating far away), provincial taxpayers would not seem to benefit if we train people only to have them leave to find work.

A much better mission for universities is, I believe, the development of excellent research and development programs that push innovation forward. I have discussed this before; in fact, more than once. Science and engineering R&D have already resulted in successful start-ups in NB; why not expand R&D and use it to produce more innovative goods and services that we can export globally. That is a key to producing the high-wage jobs the province desperately needs. So what is stopping us? Money, or the lack of it, is the problem. We can try to pry more R&D dollars out of the feds (they certainly do not give us a fair share of their R&D spending now) and we can try to encourage local corporations to spend more of their R&D dollars here in NB. In the end, though, we have to face the fact that we need to get more from our provincial university spending. The province simply lacks the fiscal capacity to put much more money into R&D.

So what do we do to get the most R&D out of our university spending? Seems to me we need to do some rationalization and re-align our institutions to put more emphasis on science/engineering R&D and less emphasis on just about everything else. Let’s take the two universities sharing Fredericton’s College Hill as an example. “Up the Hill” we have two separate universities that essentially share the same campus – two administrations, two human resource systems, and two athletic programs. There is considerable academic overlap as well – both offer programs in English literature, Economics, Political Science, Sociology, Psychology and Mathematics. Is there really a need for that apparent duplication? I appreciate the loyalty of alumni and students to their university, but, it seems to me it is in the public interest and the taxpayers’ interest to revisit what we are funding and why. Here is a  possible option:

  1. Merge UNB and STU administratively. A single President, a single Board of Governors, and a single administrative unit would oversee both institutions.
  2. Reduce academic program duplication wherever possible. Programs that are of poor quality or are not sustainable might have to be terminated. Recognize that MTA is doing some things very well and might become the ‘lead’ institution for liberal arts programs, for example.
  3. A primary mission for the merged organization would be science and engineering programs, with a focus on R&D and the entrepreneurship involved in turning innovation into goods and services. Funding for increased efforts in science/engineering programs would come from the savings realized as duplication between UNB and STU is eliminated.

If we value the potential of R&D to generate more of the high-wage jobs this province needs, then we have to recognize that changes are needed to increase R&D.  Those changes will be difficult for some to accept, but hopefully we can at least have a rational discussion on the subject.

 

 

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