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CAUT Bulletin Archives

March 2002

Incoming President Says UNB Faces Uncertain Future

The newly nominated president of the University of New Brunswick says he is frustrated by the way universities in the Atlantic region are being ignored by Ottawa and the richer provinces.

Speaking in Fredericton last month at the fourth in a series of cross-country hearings organized by CAUT, John McLaughlin warned that without a renewed federal commitment to post-secondary education his institution faces an uncertain future.

"In this province, the dilemmas are unbelievable," McLaughlin said. "We now have the lowest level of funding in the country for university education. We're in a region that has very high tuition rates and at the same time the ability to pay simply isn't there. We're struggling with so many challenges to continue to try to be a national university and be a part of the national scene."

McLaughlin says he is worried there are so few organizations defending the value of a post-secondary education system that is equally funded and of the highest quality in all regions of the country.

"Some organizations, like the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada frankly, are beginning to divide up as some folks begin to buy into this University of Toronto model, this obscene idea about what law school should be like," McLaughlin told the hearings. "I want to know who's left out there who wants to bring together all of us Canadians who have a shared sense of what we could be."

McLaughlin added, "Looking out at a pretty lonely landscape these days, I think that CAUT could be one of the most effective and strongest voices we could have as a community."

Much of the blame for the woes currently faced by institutions like UNB and St. Thomas University, McLaughlin says, can be placed squarely on the federal government.

"In the last four or five years we've had this bizarre situation develop where (federal Finance Minister) Paul Martin and others have said that if Canada is to be productive then we've got to look to other countries like Western Europe, the Nordic countries and the United States and we've got to make the kind of investment they've been making. But they only bring that logic down to Canada as a whole. They don't talk about the regions within Canada. In fact, the programs that Martin and others have been supporting have been counterproductive to the kind of vision that we could be part of in this national agenda," McLaughlin said.

Gregory Kealey, vice-president of research at UNB, agreed, noting that new federal research funding is not being allocated equally across the country.

"In effect, although there's a lot more research money on the table and a commitment to innovation, it seems to be a commitment to research and innovation that is largely for the McGills, the Université de Montréals, the Torontos, the UBCs, and the University of Albertas of this country," Kealey said.

As well as struggling with the inequities in research funding, institutions in Atlantic Canada also face a "grave situation" in funding graduate students, says Gwen Davies, UNB's dean of graduate studies.

"Unlike Quebec, Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia, we have no provincial or regional scholarships for graduate students. We have absolutely nothing to compete with something like the Ontario graduate scholarship. It means that we are losing our graduate students in the region to other parts of Canada," Davies said.

She added the trouble faced in keeping and attracting graduate students is making it even more difficult for institutions in the Atlantic region to compete with other institutions in the country for new faculty members.

"At a time when there is going to be a crisis in the universities in Canada in terms of trying to fill faculty positions, students in this region are discouraged from going to graduate school because they just cannot face the massive debt that is implied by continuing beyond the bachelor's level," Davies explained.

Suzanne Prior, vice-president of the Faculty Association of the University of Saint Thomas, also warned that institutions in New Brunswick are facing considerable challenges in recruiting new faculty members.

"To recruit and retain faculty, our universities not only need to pay competitive salaries, they also need to provide a work environment that is supportive of teaching and research," Prior said. "At St. Thomas we've seen a growing student-to-faculty ratio, larger and larger classes, and more and more of our classes are being taught by part-time instructors who are grossly underpaid."

She also noted that higher tuition fees and rising student debt loads are going to make it even more difficult for universities like St. Thomas to hire the new faculty that are needed.

"We're seeing more and more people graduating with PhDs who are in debt. And these are the potential future professors of our universities. These future faculty members will take job offers from the universities who can pay them the highest salaries to help offset their debt," Prior said.

Esam Hussein, president of the Association of University of New Brunswick Teachers, also expressed concerns about faculty recruitment and retention, and said universities cannot attract new faculty members without providing the infrastructure to support teaching and research.

"Our infrastructure is in very bad shape," Hussein said, "to the point that some of the additional research funding coming from the federal government is very difficult to accommodate. One of my colleagues had his equipment (funded by the Canada Foundation for Innovation) sitting in the parking lot because there was no room for it."

Desmond Morley, executive director of the Federation of New Brunswick Faculty Associations, says faculty in the province must also struggle with the poor state of research facilities, including libraries.

"Our libraries are in appallingly bad condition. If you want to attract researchers or retain researchers you cannot send them into a library where the only things on the shelves are James Bond books because that's the only thing you can afford to pay for," Morley said.

He noted the acquisitions budget at UNB increased 13 per cent over the past 12 years, but over a similar period the cost of serial publications rose by 142 per cent.

"The number of books purchased by the library in 1990-1991 was 12,000. Last year, it was 6,000," he reported.

The difficult situation faced by part-time and contract academic staff was also highlighted during the hearings in Fredericton.

Moira McLaughlin, a lecturer at St. Thomas University, says the use of part-time faculty has grown dramatically at her institution to the point that in each of the past five years the number of contract staff has equalled or surpassed that of full-time faculty.

She says despite playing such a central role in teaching contract academic staff receive poor compensation and few benefits. "Part-time faculty have no health benefits and only established part-time faculty are in the pension plan. Office space is a problem with privacy for students difficult to maintain. There is no access to research funds."

She says the students suffer most from the increasing reliance on part-time and contract instructors. "As universities continue to exploit their faculty by not maintaining a full-time faculty complement and de-professionalizing the part-time contribution, it will be the students who will be hurt. They will not receive the full education for which they paid so dearly."

Patricia Ann Post, a lecturer at UNB, also noted that part-time instructors often feel isolated from the academic community and receive little recognition for their work.

"It was recently revealed to me that I was the recipient of the faculty teaching award two years running, but because I was a part-timer it went to the runner-up. It's hard to be a professional at times when we're not recognized by colleagues," Post said.

She claims that employment insecurity compromises the ability of part-time teachers to exercise their academic freedom.

"Our position at this university is a precarious and insecure one. We don't use the term academic freedom lightly or very often, because without prior warning we are often given freedom from academe at the drop of a decimal," she said.

Student representatives also expressed concern about the state of post-secondary education in Canada, noting that tuition fees have been rising dramatically at the same time as the quality of education has been compromised.

"Students pay more each fall and feel they're getting less," said Kate Whitfield, vice-president of the University of New Brunswick Students Association.

Theresa Sabourin of the Canadian Federation of Students stated that attempts by governments to provide more loans to students in an effort to help pay for higher fees is the wrong way to deal with the problem.

"Government strategies for dealing with soaring student debt have been deeply flawed. Canada remains one of two nations in the world without a national system of needs-based grants, yet saddles its students with some of the highest fees. A loans-based approach to student financial assistance has proved to be a failure at guaranteeing access," Sabourin said.

Tristis Ward, station manager of CHSR-FM at UNB and St. Thomas, agreed that the student loan system is not working. "Students who come through my radio station now tell me horror stories about their student loans and their debt loads. They are at the complete mercy of the banks. Our education system should not be a debt-driven enterprise, but it is just that for lower- to middle-income people."

Allan Sharp, dean of science at UNB, chaired the hearings in Fredericton and concluded the day's events by offering his personal views about the value of post-secondary education.

"I came from a family with very modest means. As a result of the fact that I had both the access to and the interest in a very good quality education, my family is now in what I believe would be the highest income levels. That sounds like a hell of a social program to me, that you could take a kid from a working class background and put them into the highest income classes. Our country is missing the boat if we don't do that over and over and over again," Sharp said.