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N.B. shelves polytechnic proposal

BY ALLISON LAWLOR | MAR 10 2008

Premier Shawn Graham plans to make sweeping changes to New Brunswick’s colleges and universities as part of the province’s most ambitious review of its postsecondary system in 40 years, but he insists that these changes won’t come at the expense of some university campuses.

After months of uncertainty, Mr. Graham pledged in his State of the Province address in late January that the University of New Brunswick’s campuses in both Fredericton and Saint John would continue to operate. UNB Saint John would continue to offer liberal arts programs and expand with new programs to meet community needs.

The future of the Saint John campus was cast in doubt last September, when a government-appointed commission on postsecondary education recommended that UNB Saint John be merged with community college campuses in Saint John and St. Andrews into a polytechnic institution. The commission also proposed joining francophone Université de Moncton campuses in Shippagan and Edmundston with local community colleges to create polytechnics in northern New Brunswick.

The commission’s recommendations prompted angry protests across the province, and caused the premier to form a working group made up of university presidents and community college principals to assess the proposals and come up with alternative plans.

The most positive result of all the turmoil has been a greater willingness among university and community college leaders to cooperate, said John McLaughlin, president of the University of New Brunswick and a member of the group working on recommendations for the provincial government. As University Affairs went to press, the group was expected to release its report soon.

“We’ve all agreed we need closer relationships between community colleges and universities in the province,” Dr. McLaughlin said.

These closer ties will result in a greater integration, which could include shared facilities and a strong credit transfer system between colleges and universities. New applied programs could also be offered jointly by colleges and universities to help facilitate the growing energy sector in Saint John, he said.

“We want to build the best education system for the province,” Dr. McLaughlin said.

Saba Mattar, president of the Association of University of New Brunswick Teachers, which represents professors and librarians, agreed that closer ties between colleges and universities is a positive development. But he said he worries about new pressures on universities to corporatize and respond to immediate labour needs and the threat that poses to academic freedom.

“Private interests shouldn’t dictate what universities can and cannot do. We have to remain independent for us to advance,” Dr. Mattar said. “We hope that any collaboration will maintain our university’s independence.”

One topic the premier didn’t touch on in his address was governance, the area that most concerns Dr. Mattar. The commission had recommended that UNB and Université de Moncton change their governance structures so that the senate would report through the university president or rector. Dr. Mattar called the proposal unacceptable: “The senate must be independent and elected. This makes a university independent.”

In his address, Mr. Graham did assure New Brunswickers that Université de Moncton will maintain its presence in Shippagan and Edmundston, and that UNB and Université de Moncton will coordinate research conducted by all of the province’s universities and community colleges. The premier also said that each of New Brunswick’s four universities will have its mandate defined in upcoming legislation.

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