[Nova Scotia’s government introduced Bill 100 “Universities Accountability and Sustainability Act” on 22 April 2015. Five days later, it went through a Second Reading and so went to the Law Amendments Committee and gave many of us the opportunity to spend five minutes outlining our concerns to the Committee on 30 April 2015. Below are my remarks to the committee, after introductions, with links integrated from the list of references I gave the committee.
It should be noted that there has been much public outcry over this Bill, particularly over its suspension of rights to strike and to grieve, its system of fines for dissent, and its failure to get actual accountability and transparency on financial matters: finances are only examined under this Bill in the context of a crisis. For broader examinations of Bill 100, see the response by the Canadian Assoc. of University Teachers, a joint statement by Nova Scotia Federation of Labour, Canadian Federation of Students–Nova Scotia, Association of Nova Scotia University Teachers, Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union, & Canadian Union of Public Employees, and an op-ed by Scott Stewart, president of the CBU Faculty Association. These are all negative; at time of writing, I am not aware of any published statements in support of the Bill except from its framers–the Liberal government, apparently in consultation with university presidents.
UPDATE (May 1st): there are reports that all presentations to Law Amendments Committee opposed Bill 100 (approx. 50). CAUT unanimously passes comprehensive motion against Bill 100, including “THAT any Nova Scotia university that complies with Bill 100 by applying for a revitalization plan will be subjected to the procedures leading to censure by CAUT.”]
I want to focus today on the requirements of the revitalization plan in section 12(1), and its failure to recognize the statutes and regulations that govern university decision-making, particularly since university governance is a research area of mine.
The Bill as a whole is written as if a university is a blob of professors teaching a blob of students under a blobby central administration, with only collective agreements to define the relationships between them. A university is actually run like a government, on terms you’ll all find very familiar: departments, within faculties, within a university, like municipalities, within provinces, within Canada. Governance processes are largely in place via university policies and regulations, but also entrenched in principle in provincial statutes, such as the 1988 Nova Scotia statute beginning, “The internal regulation of Dalhousie College and University is committed to the University Senate” (see pdf link on webpage).
Changes or additions to university regulations, research centres, and graduate and undergraduate programs must all go through multiple levels. Proposals to alter or add undergraduate programs, for instance, go through committee reviews in the Department and then Faculty, then to Senate, and then, if approved by a full meeting of Senate, to the Board of Governors for final approval. If it’s a graduate program, it also goes to the Maritime Provinces Higher Education Commission or MPHEC—an interprovincial body that is nowhere mentioned in the Bill and is not under the Minister’s purview but is “an agency of the Council of Maritime Premiers.”
All of these rigorous processes, from departments to the MPHEC, are in place to ensure quality and the international recognition of Nova Scotia degrees: a degree in Chemistry must mean principally the same thing from year to year, from province to province, and beyond, for the degree to have any meaning to employers or other universities. New, innovative programs must go through the same processes as long-established programs to have the same credibility. It is for this reason that, on a regular basis, our departments and our faculties are subject to external reviews, including on-site assessments by academics from other provinces or countries: it is for this reason that tenure and promotion for faculty typically depend on national and international review; it is for this reason that there are best-practices documents on university governance from various national organizations (see CAUT, AAUP, and IEG-pdf).
Some of the items in section 12(1) ask for extensive analysis, say b and c, and so could be put together by a team of staff in a few weeks or months. But e, g, and i involve students’ learning, courses, and programs, and so fall under the responsibility of Senate and the lengthy deliberative processes leading to it. A group can draft a “plan,” but the plan is just words on paper until it is broken into program-specific pieces and sent through multiple governance processes within a university, in which various committees can change, approve, or reject, based on their expertise. The revitalization plan process here, bluntly, looks like a massive amount of work that only leads to a meaningless document without any force in a university except as a starting point for years of multi-level discussion and decisions. The hopelessly vague wording in sections 21 and 25 might give some latitude for more draconian measures to circumvent normal university regulations, but doing so would risk the reputation and even credibility of degrees—and, in the case of external accreditation or MPHEC approval, the very viability of degrees. [For some examples of NS programs with non-NS accreditation, see here, here, here, and here.]
If the government proceeds with this Bill, at a minimum Section 12(1) and others should be extensively reframed after consultations with people knowledgeable in basic university governance. I would also suggest that language be added to recognize that a significant portion of university programs in Nova Scotia must regularly meet criteria set by out-of-province bodies. John Donne famously declared, “No man is an island . . . every man is a piece of the continent”—well, no university is a stand-alone operation either, but part of a larger academic network and, in the case of some programs, professional bodies as well. Only finances stay within provincial and board responsibility.
The pervasive disconnect between this Bill and how universities actually work, as internally and externally regulated multi-level institutions, simply makes it impractical to implement. It’s like suggesting we play Scrabble with Monopoly pieces. I urge the government to rewrite the Bill so that the pieces match the playing board, and with a practical focus on financial accountability and transparency as a regular part of normal university governance.