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If NSCAD were a paper mill

May 16, 2012

3-minute read

As students in Quebec continue their 14 week strike, students in Nova Scotia continue to be reminded that post-secondary education is not a priority for the Nova Scotia government. Students and faculty at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD), in particular, are bracing for severe funding cuts as the provincial government continues to target the school, which has faced financial hardship for several years. Students have already been told to expect $900 in total fee hikes, including tuition fee increases and the introduction of new fees. NSCAD will also be offering  fewer classes and making further program cuts. The university is recommending laying off 26 faculty and staff members.

Last month, the NSCAD administration provided their response to a report, commissioned by the provincial government and written by Howard Windsor, that reviewed NSCAD’s finances and made recommendations regarding the institution’s future. While the university system as a whole has been underfunded for decades, NSCAD has suffered additional problems as a result of a funding formula that has never fully recognized the true cost of providing a studio-based fine arts education.

To make matters worse, these long-term, systemic problems have been exacerbated by poor decisions made by a former administration, and authorized by a previous board of governors. They agreed to construct a new campus, while failing to secure the funding required to actually pay for it. The combination of paying the operating costs of a second campus while servicing the large debt accruing from its construction has resulted in substantial ongoing annual operating deficits, which — in the absence of government intervention — are likely to increase.

The Windsor report was released on Dec. 13, 2011. NSCAD and the provincial government adopted its eight recommendations. The report opens the way to the possibility of program closures at NSCAD, and urges the exploration of "collaborative arrangements" with other institutions — arrangements that sound like a recipe for merger.

It also states NSCAD’s survival plan cannot rely on more provincial funding. This reflects the province’s approach of largely treating NSCAD like a university gone astray rather than recognizing the systemic problems that contributed to NSCAD’s current financial situation.

Also in December 2011, the province committed $50 million in order to keep the Bowater Mersey paper mill open. This included a $23.75-million land purchase. The bailout was delivered after it came to light that the mill’s parent company had shelled out major management bonuses and after workers had taken significant concessions.

This approach is seen as acceptable for private, for-profit industry, but the government has been unwilling to take the same measures to secure the future of this cultural institution.

The government should recognize that NSCAD is more than a university — it is a world-renowned cultural institution that is a cornerstone of Nova Scotia’s arts and culture sector. The municipal and provincial governments benefit from having such an important institution in the province; the Granville and Port campuses are important anchors in Halifax’s downtown. Nova Scotians should be asking why the province is failing to take some responsibility for this major cultural institution.

To address these issues at NSCAD, this year’s Nova Scotia Alternative Budget, titled "Forward to Fairness" and prepared by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Nova Scotia, made two recommendations.

The first is to take $19 million of the $25 million allocated to a "University Excellence and Innovation program," intended to give an incentive to universities to cut costs, and redirect it to pay NSCAD’s outstanding debt.

Second, the government should review each university’s legislation and involve stakeholders to develop boards of governors’ membership criteria that prioritize public accountability, and student, staff and faculty involvement. While universities receive a significant amount of public funding, there are no formalized structures to hold them accountable to the government or the public. This can lead to those in charge making decisions that are not in the best interest of students, staff and faculty or the general public.

When for-profit companies face challenges, we see it fit for the government to intervene so workers and communities are not punished for poor management decisions or economic challenges. When our cornerstone cultural institution faces difficulties based on poor management decisions and government funding challenges, why do we think that students, staff, faculty and the Nova Scotia community should pay the price?

Kaley Kennedy has co-authored the CCPA’s alternative provincial budgets for several years. This piece was adapted from "Forward to Fairness: N.S. Alternative Budget 2012." A version of this blog post appeared on April 13 in the Chronicle Herald newspaper.

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