HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

Tag Archives: New Brunswick

October 02

Atlantic Blues

One big story from out east that didn’t get a lot of play in the rest of the country was the news that the Nova Scotia government had, over the period 2013-2017, quietly bailed out Acadia University to the tune of $24 million.  This is of course the second time a Nova Scotia government has bailed out this decade: the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD) received about $10 million.

This isn’t really a partisan thing: it was an NDP government that bailed out NSCAD and a Liberal one which offered extra help to Acadia.  It’s a structural problem: Nova Scotia is not a very rich province, and it has a lot of universities, only one of which is large enough to have real economies of scale.  This problem was laid out in great detail seven years ago by economist Tim O’Neill in a special report on the system prepared for the Provincial Government but the Dexter government passed on making the difficult decisions.  Now, the new Liberal government has put some extra money in and has allowed institutions to raise a bit more money through tuition, but it doesn’t change the really basic structural challenge the province’s institutions face.  Come next recession, at least one university will be back in the same situation.

From the Acadia story we can glean two things.  First, former President Ray Ivany is clearly a very persuasive guy (but we kind of knew that).  Second, we now have some greater insight into the drafting of the controversial Bill 100, which provided for the possibility of universities to ignore collective agreements if they were in financial exigency and needed to restructure.  Turns out it wasn’t out of the blue: it was in reaction to Acadia telling them they needed a bail-out.  Bill 100 was the Government signalling to everyone in the province’s higher education community: bailouts aren’t the only possible outcome.  Radical restructuring is a possibility too.

How radical?  Well, two neighbouring provinces can give a sense of how bad things can get.  We’ve seen what kind of time Memorial University of Newfoundland is having dealing with cuts of 20% or more to income with little to no ability to recoup money from tuition fees.  In New Brunswick, cuts to provincial operating grants have if anything been as severe, if spread out a little more – a 22% drop in real terms from 2010-11 to 2015-2016 (see back here for more on provincial changes).  Student numbers have fallen as well, by nearly 15%.  That’s a double-edged sword, because while it means the per-student cut in the operating grant is not as severe, that’s also a lot less fee income coming in as well.

Figure 1: Change in university enrolments, Atlantic Provinces, 2010-11 = 100


Source: Association of Atlantic Universities

In fact, the only province in the region where things remain reasonably quiet is Prince Edward Island, where the UPEI is holding its ground both in terms of government grants and student numbers.  Compared to the rest of the region, that’s a reasonably good place to be.

The fundamental challenge of most of the region’s universities is size.  Small is a great selling point – if you can charge for it.  If you can’t, small just means fragile.  And fragility describes too many Atlantic universities right now.  Acadia won’t be the last university in the region to approach the brink; there’s almost certainly more drama to come in the years ahead.

 

 

March 02

Bravo, New Brunswick

Readers may remember that about this time last year, I was giving the Government of New Brunswick a bit of stick for a botched student aid roll-out. Today I am pleased to give credit where it is due, and congratulate the folks in Fredericton for fixing the problem and developing a much better student aid system.

Let’s go back 12 months to pick up the story.  In February 2016, the Ontario government had come up with a fabulous new system which basically made a promise of grants equal to or greater than average tuition for students from low to mid-family incomes.  At family incomes above that, students received a declining amount of money out to about $110,000 at which point the grant flattens to a little under $2,000 (a remnant of the government’s ludicrous “30% tuition rebate” from 2011) and then falls to zero a little over $160,000.  With a bit of clumsiness this eventually, sort of, got branded as “free tuition for low- and middle-income students, which it isn’t, quite, but close enough for advertising.  Cue what is seen to be a major policy success.

It was such a success that New Brunswick decided to copy it later last spring.  Like Ontario, they built on the change to Canada Student Grants and eliminated some of their own tax credits (including the egregiously wasteful graduate tax rebate) to fund a “Tuition Access Bursary”, which guaranteed a grant equal to tuition (up to a maximum of $10,000, which was more generous than Ontario) for students from families making under $60,000. Which is great, right?  Well, yes, except the problem is, there was no phase-out for the grant.  At $59,999 in family income, there you were raking in $6500 or so in grants and at $60,001 you got $1200 in grants (the federal middle-income grant) and that’s not great social policy.  Making it worse was the fact that families in that $60K to $70K would also be losing a lot of money in tax credits that both the federal and provincial governments were ending in order to pay for this new benefit; my back-of-the envelope calculation was that in this range, parents were going to be about $1,200 worse off as a result of the change.

In any case, because I and others pointed out this flaw, the government after a brief period of defensive blustering decided it was best to go back to the drawing board and revisit the formula.  They did so and last week came up with a new “Tuition Relief for the Middle Class”, which basically involved taking a sliding declining scale of grants for families earning between $60-100,000 onto the existing Tuition Access Bursary (which has been renamed the “Free Tuition Program”).  Arguably, the New Brunswick program is now somewhat better than the Ontario program because 1) it’s not just “grants up to “average” tuition”, a caveat which I suspect is going to leave a lot of people slightly cheesed off when the program starts and 2) It still manages not to subsidize people up to that absurdly high $160K + threshold that Ontario insists on maintaining.  Ontario gets points for making its aid portable, though – New Brunswick’s program is only available to students who study in-province, which I think is a shame.

The announcement – which you know, hey guys, it’s a good news story! – was marred somewhat by some media sniping about how the number of beneficiaries is about 30% short of what was estimated last year.  To me this is neither here nor there: government cost estimates on year 1 of a new program are often a matter of throwing numbers at a dartboard.  The good news is that there is still money to either raise the entry threshold for the Free Tuition Program or (better still) expand the debt relief program or top up the amount of money available to high-need mature students and parents through the New Brunswick Bursary Program.

Now, all we need for this to be perfect is for New Brunswick to come up with a smart, credible monitoring program to examine the effects of these changes on participation over the next few years.

(New Brunswick folk: that’s on the way, right guys?  Right?  Well, you know where to find me if you need a hand…)

Anyways, as I say, credit where it is due.  Well done, New Brunswick.

May 16

The New-Brunswick Step-Function

So there’s a kerfuffle going on in New Brunswick about the government’s new “tuition-free” policy for students from families with under $60K in income which I mentioned in passing a couple of weeks ago.  Basically, the problem is that the government drew up the program hurriedly, on the back of an envelope, and didn’t think through the consequences.

If you just listen to the launch announcements, the new New Brunswick program is similar to the new Ontario program (which you may recall I praised to the skies: Ontario promised “free tuition” (actually, grants equal to or greater than average tuition) for “low and middle income families” while New Brunswick promised grants equal to tuition for anyone with family incomes under $60,000.  Same, right?

Wrong.  The difference is that the Ontario program has a long phase-out.  That is, grants fall as income rises, but gradually.  In New Brunswick, they drop off a cliff at $60,000.  A student from a family with income of $59,999 will get (effectively) $7,000 or so in grants, but at $60,001, you’re only going to get about $1,200.  Figure 1 shows eligibility for federal grants (in blue, for 2015-16 and 2016-17), and the New Brunswick Tuition Access Bursary (TAB) and the Ontario Student Grant (OSG) – the OSG line is a bit messy, and I assume it will actually be a bit smoother than this, but this is a best-estimate based on the Ontario budget papers).

Figure 1 – Eligibility for Grants, Ontario Study Grant Vs. New-Brunswick Tuition Access Bursary

ottsyd 20160514 01

In the business, this is what’s known as a “step-function”, and is generally best avoided because it creates all sorts of weird incentives.  In this case, a New Brunswick family with two parents earning $30,000 each and a kid in university will be way better off rejecting a salary raise than they would be accepting it, as their kid would lose $5800 in grant funding every year. 

But the problem in New Brunswick goes deeper than that.  It’s not just that such parents will lose money in the future, it’s that they are going to be worse off than they are now.  New Brunswick is paying for this move by ditching the provincial tax credits for tuition and education, and this elimination is on top of the federal government ditching its education and textbook tax credits to pay for the upgrade in federal grants.  What this means is that everyone in New Brunswick will lose about $1600 worth of tax credits.  For those at the low-end of the income scale, that’s fine, because this will be offset by the higher grants.  But for a family earning $60,001, they will be losing that $1600, but only gaining $400, thanks to the increase in federal grant.  Something similar happens in Ontario as well, but only once you get past about $110,000 in family income.  In New Brunswick, we’re talking about taking away $1200 per year in aid from people earning $60,000.  That’s a big, nasty hit. 

You may well ask “why didn’t New Brunswick have a more phased-out reduction”?  Well, it’s hard to tell.  The minister, after claiming her program was identical to Ontario’s, later told CBC that she had no idea Ontario had a phase-out and New Brunswick didn’t.  Which is, you know, a bit worrying.  But the bigger reasons are that New Brunswick a) has never spent that much on student aid, and so didn’t have as big a base of money to redistribute as Ontario and b) appears to have only re-invested half the money it saved from axing various tax credits (that’s an estimate – it hasn’t been super-transparent with cost estimates of the program; one wonders if this isn’t the reasons the government didn’t announce this measure as part of the budget where the figures would have been more transparent).  Had it re-invested more fully, New Brunswick probably would have had enough money to do an Ontario-style phase out.

Now, in addition to having announced a flawed policy, the Government of New Brunswick has annoyed the crap out of me personally by claiming that I provided the inspiration for said policy. To that end, it appears to have been handing out partial copies of a paper produced for the previous government in 2011-12.  Since my client has been (selectively) leaking my work, I don’t particularly feel bound by any of the usual confidentiality provisions. So here’s what actually happened:

HESA did do some work for the New Brunswick government – specifically, the Ministry of Advanced Education and Labour – in the fall of 2011.  We were asked two questions.  One, were the back-end subsidies New Brunswick was then using (a timely-completion loan remission program, the usual tuition & education tax credits and a graduate tax benefit) effective?  Two, could we come up with some more interesting ways to use that money? 

To the first question, we answered no, for a variety of reasons which, if you’re a regular reader, you can probably guess.  To the second question we said the money should be used three ways.  One, a new grant program to deal with “unmet need” (that is, need in excess of current aid maximums), which primarily would have benefitted students with dependents.  Second, because student debt and repayment is a much more serious problem in the Maritimes than it is in the rest of the country (because of higher debt & lower graduate incomes), we suggested a hard debt-ceiling of $7,000 per year, with the remainder turned into grants.  Last, we suggested some investment in early-intervention programs.  We did NOT suggest anything like what the provincial government has done.  And frankly I’m more than a bit teed off the present government chose to publicly present our findings that way.

Bottom line: getting rid of tax credits is good.  Re-investing funds in a way that concentrates more spending on lower-income students is good.  Bravo to New Brunswick to getting those two things right.  But details matter.  This government got the details wrong by not fully re-investing and putting too high a burden on middle-income students.  It needs to fix this.

April 19

The Balkanization of Canadian Student Aid

So, a couple of things happened late last week worth mentioning:

First, the Newfoundland Budget was released and as predicted it was a slash-and-burn exercise.  The province, facing a deficit of something like 8% of GDP, had to make major changes.  Unbelievably, the tuition freeze stayed, sort of (more on this tomorrow), but student aid took a hit.  Remember in 2014 when Newfoundland eliminated grants?  That’s over, the first $40 week in provincial aid is now a loan again.  But more importantly, the government has completely eliminated grants for students studying outside the province if their program of study is offered inside the province.  So, a law student going to Dal gets the grant, but if God forbid you want to study Science or Engineering somewhere other than MUN – it’s loans only on the provincial side (said students would still receive federal grants).

Second, the premier of New Brunswick announced pretty much out of nowhere that low-income students in his province would be free and that details would be available from the Ministry of Advanced Education “in a few days” (at time of writing we’re still waiting).  Not many details yet – from the few nuggets available it sounds a lot like the Ontario program (provincial tax credits are being axed) – which is of course a Good Thing.  But one key point did come out, namely that the grant would not be portable.  If you chose to leave New Brunswick, it would be loans only on the provincial side.

I. Am. Furious.

The extent to which young people in Atlantic Canada are treated as “resources” to be hoarded is just appalling.  It’s almost never “how can we attract young people”, it’s “how can we keep the ones we’ve got from leaving”.  From a very young age, bright young people are essentially sold a bill of goods by guidance councilors and community leaders – “don’t leave the province, it’s a betrayal to leave the province, you are our future”.   The guilt-trips are outrageous.  And now along comes provincial policies in Newfoundland and New Brunswick to use financial means to punish students who have the temerity to want to study outside the province. 

At least you can sort of excuse the Newfoundland one on grounds of austerity because financially that government really is in trouble.  But New Brunswick?  They canned a huge graduate tax rebate last year and promised to re-invest the money.  There is no way that amount of money wouldn’t cover an extension of the program to out-of-province students.  Hell, Ontario actually cut total grant + tax-credit dollars in its announcement and still managed to extend the coverage of its new grants (currently, the Ontario Assistance Grant is portable but the Ontario Tuition Grant is not – the new grant is fully portable).  Instead, New Brunswick is doing this specifically to try to divert New Brunswick students away from out-of-province schools in order to give its own universities more tuition revenue and hence obviate the need for the province itself to actually pony up some money.  Brian Gallant calls that a win; we’ll see if he thinks the same when New Brunswick lose students after Nova Scotia and PEI retaliate in kind.

Now look, I get it.  People want what’s good for their communities, and the economics of Atlantic Canada have been scary for decades.  It’s easy to retreat into a defensive shell.  But holding your own youth hostage is not cool.  Those kids aren’t resources to be hoarded; politicians need to let them go and succeed wherever they want to succeed.  Student aid should be about expanding opportunity, not limiting it.

These changes need to be reversed.  And if the provinces won’t do it on their own, the federal government should change the legislation underlying the Canada Student Loans Program to penalize partner provinces whose loan programs don’t provide mobility across Canada.  More than ever before, their programs are built around federal largesse – Ottawa should extract something in return.  And freedom to study without penalty anywhere in the country is a right worth fighting for.

January 06

The New Normal

Happy New Year!  Did everyone have a great vacation?

The highlight of my vacation was going to Argentina and stumbling upon the world’s most unfortunately-named university in a suburb of Buenos Aires, named “Morón”.  It’s called – wait for it – Unversidad de Morón.  Seriously, their international marketing people must have the most difficult jobs in higher ed.

Anyhow, I wanted to start the year by talking about what was a hopeful development from last fall – the Government of New Brunswick’s decision to pre-announce university funding increases for the next two years.  Instead of waiting for provincial budget-time to make an announcement (which, quite honestly, is far too late for institutions needing to do serious planning), the government pre-announced not one but two(!) years’ worth of future increases: 2% for 2014-15, and another 2% for 2015-16.  And they also told institutions they could raise domestic undergraduate tuition by 3% for each of the next two years.  Assuming no big increase in domestic or international student numbers, that means the university can count on overall budget increases of around 2.33%.

Great news, right?  Guaranteed new money!

Put the champagne down, guys.  2.33% still isn’t enough to keep pace.  Cutbacks will inevitably follow.  To understand why, let’s look at professorial pay.

UNB profs are currently without a contract – and indeed are very close to a strike on the issue.  But their previous four-year contract was a fairly generous one.  It moved the salary grid upwards by (on average) 2.4% per year, plus everyone not at the top of their pay grade got annual bumps of (on average) about $1300/year.  What percentage that works out to in total depends on where your place is in the pay grid, but for new associate professors, on average, it was about 4% per year on the nose.

So, 4% in total on academics pay.  Benefits tend to scale at the same rate, as does non-academic pay, so 4% on those, too.  At most Canadian universities, salaries and benefits are about 60% of all expenditures.  Multiply that out – 60% times 4% = 2.4%, and right there we’ve already used up slightly more than the entire announced increase in funding.

That is to say: if labour contracts continue to play out the way they have over the past four years, there is exactly no money left over for anything else.  But since inflation erodes buying power, that actually implies ongoing cutbacks of all non-salary items of about 2% per year.  And that’s the best case scenario for a university, since I think few provinces will be as generous as New Brunswick this year.

The reality, then, is this: either staff pay settlements have to start coming into line with increases in institutional income, or the new normal is going to be continuing pay hikes, combined with annual cutbacks in all non-salary items.

That’s the math, and there’s no escaping it.