Nova Scotia government forks out extra $6-million to two universities

A sign marks one of the entrances to the St. Francis Xavier University campus in Antigonish, N.S., on September 28, 2018.
A sign marks one of the entrances to the St. Francis Xavier University campus in Antigonish, N.S., on September 28, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

Two Nova Scotia universities are getting more than $6-million to eliminate deficits this fiscal year, says the province’s minister of advanced education.

St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish is getting an additional $3.95-million in operating funding, while the University of King’s College in Halifax will get an extra $2.2-million.

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Labi Kousoulis said Friday the amounts – arrived at following provincial audits – would “help stabilize their financial positions.”

“It’s not a windfall for them, but it keeps them at a level of being able to go forward and manage the universities,” he said.

Kousoulis said the idea is to get them out of an operating deficit this year and with subsequent budgets.

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“I don’t want to increase funding and then in two years have to do it again. So we need to make sure that we are looking at a longer-term approach in terms of what they require and we also have to get to the right amount that they require.”

This year’s operating grant for Nova Scotia’s 10 universities is $341-million.

Prior to the top-ups, grants to St. Francis Xavier totalled $29.7-million, while King’s received $5.9-million.

Kousoulis said the reason for the provincial help differed between the two universities.

He said St. Francis Xavier took on debt about a decade ago to finance construction of new residences.

“Now they are paying interest on it and they are in a situation where they were either going to keep on adding debt or eventually it was going to come to a head,” said Kousoulis.

In King’s case, the minister said it’s a small school that specializes in the humanities and is struggling with a “softening” of enrolment like many others across the country.

“They don’t offer the programs that have been increasing enrolment the last decade. This is what the landscape is and they required help to move on.”

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King’s president Bill Lahey said the problem is even more pronounced at his university because it only offers courses in the humanities and journalism.

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The school had about 1,300 undergraduate students six years ago and now has just above 900, Lahey said.

“The impact in that drop in enrolment has been exacerbated by an earlier drop in levels of government funding. King’s receives a smaller percentage of revenue from government as compared to other universities and this additional funding helps to addresses that imbalance.”

Lahey said challenges remain and the school has to continue to control costs while improving course quality and recruitment.

He said the school has already taken steps such as selling property, reducing positions, and switching from a stand-alone pension plan to the much larger public service pension plan.

Kent MacDonald, president of St. Francis Xavier, said the extra funding became necessary despite efforts to trim costs, to become more efficient, and to focus on enrolment. He said the money would go directly toward the school’s $3.4-million deficit.

“The good news is it prevents us from having to cut further into a really thin budget,” said MacDonald.

He added that it was important the playing field be levelled as all universities prepare for upcoming negotiations for a new five-year memorandum of understanding on funding with the province. The current MOU expires on March 31.

MacDonald, who is also chair of the Council of Nova Scotia University Presidents, said stable, reliable funding will be key as schools continue to face challenges around such things as IT security, building accessibility, and deferred maintenance.

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“St. F.X. has over 1.2 million square feet of infrastructure and a lot of it is over a century old,” he said.

In the last agreement, universities received increases of one per cent annually for four years and Kousoulis said he doesn’t expect the grants to decrease in the new agreement.

Like MacDonald, he said a key piece will be deferred maintenance costs. He said the immediate need is between $50-million and $80-million across all universities.

“But in capital investment that has to be made over the next decade, all the universities combined are in the $500-million-plus range,” he said.