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N.B. plans to restructure postsecondary sector

BY FRED DONNELLY | OCT 06 2008

Released this past summer, the province of New Brunswick’s postsecondary education plan is certainly ambitious.

Its stated goal is to create the best such education system in Canada, to increase provincial higher education participation rates, to make university education affordable, to increase the number of graduate students, to add 11,000 places for community college students within five years and to transform the workforce as a means to achieving economic self-sufficiency by 2026. Implementing it is projected to cost at least $90 million over five years.

To meet its objectives, the thrust of the new provincial policy is to make the postsecondary education sector more responsive to “the needs of our economy.” Students’ ability to transfer from community colleges to university will be made easier via more applied programs, and some university credit courses will be offered at community colleges. By 2010, the community college system is to be independent of direct governmental controls.

Meanwhile, all postsecondary institutions will be subjected to several new accountability reviews. Among the performance indicators to be assessed by the government are: program completion rates, participation rates in postsecondary education generally, annual growth in graduate student numbers, partnership levels with the private sector and educational costs.

A labour market focus

The plan, entitled “Be Inspired. Be Ready. Be Better. The Action Plan to Transform Postsecondary Education in New Brunswick,” sets out 33 policy directives. Perhaps the most innovative is the proposal to meet labour market demands by creating two types of virtual campuses: Institutes of Applied Learning and Training (IALTs) and Consortia of Applied Learning and Training (CALTs). There will be two of each to reflect the province’s linguistic duality, and they are to be cooperative ventures between colleges and universities.

Other recommendations include a new community college campus for Fredericton, a virtual New Brunswick library, more distance-ed courses, a common student registration system across the province, and both an expansion and an integration of the apprenticeship program into the postsecondary education sector. All public postsecondary institutions are to submit five-year strategic plans to the government and appear annually before a legislative committee.

The implications of these and other policy proposals are only now sinking in with both university and college communities. Nevertheless two areas are of immediate concern to these communities.

The first concern is the large number of boards and panels required to implement such a sweeping restructuring of the postsecondary sector. The policy document has 12: two new provincial graduate studies councils, two boards of directors for the community colleges, four IALT/CALT administrations, a shared services agency, a ministerial advisory committee, a council of the executive heads of public postsecondary institutions, and an as-yet undefined postsecondary agency to coordinate the system. Even if some of these are temporary panels charged with transitional mandates and some are filled as voluntary posts, the costs are sure to be high.

The second, more qualitative issue is the level of government intrusion in the new policy. The stated intention is to make universities and colleges more responsive to private-sector labour needs by imposing new fiscal controls and by reopening the various university acts for revision. The fear is that if such interventions are at the levels of curriculum and faculty hiring, then traditional university autonomy will be compromised.

Dr. Donnelly is a professor of history at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John.

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