Canada's Original Think Tank

Regional universities and the important role they play in Canada

Regional universities and the important role they play in Canada

Regional universities and the important role they play in Canada

Hon. Jane Cordy: 

Honourable senators, I am pleased to rise today to speak to our former colleague Senator Tardif’s inquiry calling the attention of the Senate to regional universities and the important role that they play in Canada.

Honourable senators, Canada is home to a number of different higher learning institutions. Nationwide, Canadian colleges and universities offer a variety of programs ranging from general arts degrees to more specialized degrees in trades and technology. Coast to coast to coast, we are educating some of the brightest, most hard working and driven leaders of tomorrow. Our schools are also attracting students from nations around the world.

In December 2016, Senator Tardif called on the Senate to “recognize regional universities and the important role they play in Canada.” She explained that, “. . . small to mid-sized universities play an important role in making university education more accessible to the population they serve.”

Following this, Senator Gagné delivered passionate remarks on this same topic. In her speech, Senator Gagné described how important French-language post-secondary institutions are to educate a bilingual workforce and ensure the success of students.

At this time, I would like to add to their observations and draw your attention to the role that small and medium-sized regional universities play across Canada.

When discussing higher education, it is customary to mention large universities and neglect the contributions of the smaller institutions. This can be attributed to student population size, the amount of funding larger schools receive and their advertising capabilities. Additionally, because of the large number of graduates, certain universities have become well-known internationally.

According to campus rankings, a small university is defined as a campus with a population of less than 10,000 students. A medium-sized institution population ranges from 10,000 to 20,000  students. Many small to medium-sized universities are known as being leaders with regard to student experience, small class size and student awards.

In Atlantic Canada, the majority of higher learning institutions are categorized as small institutions. This has not deterred students from travelling to Atlantic Canada for their education. Instead we have seen the opposite. In a recent Maclean’s study, 5 out of the 10 top undergraduate universities in Canada were located on the East Coast. Additionally, four out of the seven highest ranking small institutions are located in Atlantic Canada. The region has established itself as a leader in post-secondary education.

My home province of Nova Scotia is home to 10 public universities and the Nova Scotia Community College. Three of the five oldest colleges in Canada — the University of King’s College, St. Mary’s University and Dalhousie University — can be found in Halifax.

Universities make up the third-largest revenue generator after tire manufacturing and seafood preparation and packaging. In Nova Scotia university towns, approximately 35 per cent of the workforce is employed by learning institutions.

Since 2010, the number of Canadian but out-of-province students travelling to Nova Scotia for university has grown by 10 per cent overall. In that same time frame since 2010, we have seen a 50 per cent increase in the amount of international students attending Nova Scotian universities and colleges.

The number of out-of-province and international students continues to rise and it is not expected to decrease in the upcoming years. In fact, it will be necessary to continue to attract out-of-province students and international students as Nova Scotian enrolment is in decline due mostly to the declining population trends of the 18 to 29-year-olds.

Our smaller universities have success attracting out-of-province students in no small part due to the down-east hospitality and because of smaller class sizes and smaller university campuses where students don’t feel lost, particularly in their first year of studies.

International students have had substantial financial impacts on the region, with spending estimates at around $291 million last year alone. The financial benefits and unique perspectives brought forward by international students provide a valuable opportunity for growth within our province.

The smallest institution in Nova Scotia, the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design or NSCAD is home to just under 1,000 students. Having said that, NSCAD’s size has not impacted its ability to become a leader in the art world. It was founded in 1887 and became the first degree-granting art school in Canada.

NSCAD is now known for its talented graduates, diverse student body and stunning works of art. Recently it was announced that the NSCAD was moving to a new facility as their current facilities have become outdated. This will provide space for students and a promising future for the institution.

Our former colleague, Senator Wilfred Moore, received an honourary doctorate from NSCAD in 2014 for his support of the arts. He helped create the NSCAD Community Studio Residency in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia.

My alma mater, Mount Saint Vincent University, was founded as a women’s college over 140 years ago. Since then it has expanded to accept students of all genders and has seen an increase in international students. Currently, enrolment numbers are approximately 2,500. Like many other smaller universities, Mount Saint Vincent University is known for its dedicated faculty and specialized programs. These include public relations, applied human nutrition, child and youth study and hospitality management.

Like Mount Saint Vincent University, most smaller institutions provide specialized programs unique to their region which draw people both from within Nova Scotia as well as outside the province. We sometimes call them our “come from aways.” Mi’kmaq Studies at Cape Breton University is an excellent example of this. The specialization in Mi’kmaq is:

. . . designed to familiarize Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students with Mi’kmaq history, language, culture, traditions and socio-economic development of the Mi’kmaq First Nation.

Because of its size and location, CBU’s Unama’ki College is becoming a leader in this field. Many of the students registered in this program realize that by learning about the Mi’kmaq culture they are given the ability to connect with an important community in Cape Breton.

Additionally, Cape Breton University has been able to foster relationships with Mi’kmaq communities across the province. Cape Breton University also has the highest enrolment and success rate of Indigenous students in Atlantic Canada, which is a positive sign for both the community and the university.

While there have been improvements, there is still a long way to go in providing accessible education to all Canadians. Currently, small universities are 42 per cent less likely to secure federal funding than their larger institution equivalents. As a government, we can and should do more to ensure that smaller campuses are given adequate access to funding.

As previously mentioned, universities in Atlantic Canada make up 5 out of 10 of the top undergraduate schools nationwide. Sadly these institutions do not qualify in the top 10  highest graduation rates. In fact, many fall in the bottom 50 per cent of the list. According to Maclean’s there are a number of reasons for this, including financial and language barriers, preparedness of students and accessibility.

For the director of the Munk School of Global Affairs, Steven Toope, there are five main challenges impacting both large and small institutions. These include discrepancies between teaching and student expectations, the desire for higher quality research, changing attitudes, increasing Indigenous presence in schools and the need for better intercultural awareness. Both sources explain that educational institutes need to better reflect the realities of our modern world.

None of these challenges can be solved overnight. Instead, we must help universities and colleges equip their students with the tools to succeed. Smaller universities may require more funding to update existing infrastructure and compete with their larger counterparts. By placing a greater emphasis on the importance of smaller and medium-sized universities, we may see higher success rates for our students.

Honourable senators, smaller regional universities continue to face challenges. Enrolment trends and financial support from government are declining, but the institutions continue to find a way forward. The importance of our regional universities cannot be overstated as they fill a valuable role in our smaller communities all across the country. They are major employers. They provide access for young people who may not have the same opportunity to attend a larger university typically located in Canada’s major urban centres. They also attract promising young people from all around the world to Canada’s smaller regions, areas that tend to have trouble attracting new immigrants.

Honourable senators, as a former elementary school teacher and a former board member of Mount Saint Vincent University, I know the challenges our regional universities face and I understand the value of a good education. I have seen first-hand the positive impact these universities have in shaping our young people to help them reach their potential. I also know the impact these institutions have in our communities. I thank you.