Outside the legislature in Halifax — The McNeil government's spring agenda included an underwhelming first budget in April that critics charge upholds the trend of neglecting the province's post-secondary education sector. [Charles Hoffman / Flickr]
Despite an oft-stated assertion lauding the value of post-secondary institutions, Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil’s Liberal government has brought down a budget “in direct contradiction” of such a position, critics charge.
The increase of one per cent for university operating grants, under the province’s fiscal plan presented April 3, “constitutes an effective funding cut as costs, accounting for inflation, outstrip funding,” said Chris Ferns, president of the Association of Nova Scotia University Teachers.
Pointing to a system suffering from “serious structural problems,” Ferns describes a steady erosion since the 1990s in the proportion of government funding, and notes particularly more recent cuts of three, three and four per cent over the last three years, as negotiated by the former NDP government with institutional administrators.
And while the new government’s first budget trumpeted it “will reflect the value of our post-secondary institutions and their graduates,” Ferns wonders why more commitment wasn’t forthcoming, “if it’s such an asset as they claim.”
“The growth of casual academic labour will continue under these conditions. Quality of education will suffer, and labour disputes will become more likely as the constituent bodies of our universities compete for a dwindling pool of available capital,” Ferns warned.
Students aren’t immune, and face another three per cent tuition hike, “adding up to a staggering 12 per cent increase in the last four years,” he added.
The budget eliminates interest on the provincial portion of student loans for eligible students who began repayment by Nov. 1, 2007, a measure Ferns welcomed.
But he questioned the move’s ultimate value, as “given its eligibility requirements, it’s not clear how the program improves upon the (recently cancelled) graduate retention rebate.”
The rebate was worth $2,500 to university students annually for several years after graduation, and designed to stop young people from leaving the province.
The Liberal’s budget predicts a deficit in 2014–2015 of $279 million, while net debt is forecast to grow to $14.6 billion.
Debt remains a significant issue as well for several universities across the province, a “fundamental problem caused by irresponsible investment in new buildings without planning on how to pay for them,” according to Ferns.
Meanwhile, and ironically, crumbling infrastructure is also a major issue at Nova Scotia post-secondary institutions, with small and large projects continuing to add to the growing bill of maintenance fees.