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In my opinion

Campus, community and progress

Proud to be mayor of an education hub.

BY MIKE SAVAGE | MAR 20 2013

This essay is adapted from an address that Halifax Mayor Mike Savage gave in February to a meeting of university government relations officers and communications directors, convened in Ottawa by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada.

As a member of parliament for seven years and, until 2011, chair of the Liberal Post-secondary Education and Research Caucus, I had the privilege of traveling around Canada and learning about our universities and colleges through meeting presidents, other leaders, students, professors and researchers. I was very lucky to have learned about, and worked with, universities and colleges as an MP, and am indebted to many for their patience and time.

But as I considered running for mayor of Halifax, I began to see postsecondary institutions through a somewhat different lens, a wider lens. Today, I would describe them as:

  • Economic generators
  • Talent producers
  • Entrepreneur developers
  • Community designers
  • Demographic balancers
  • Culture builders
  • Innovation initiators
  • Revenue contributors
  • Social equity facilitators
  • Immigrant attractors

In fact, there is no aspect of the economy, or the cultural or social life of a city, that is not touched by our universities and community colleges. And, there is no asset that Halifax has that is more important, or of greater strategic value, than our six universities and the community college.

The direct economic impact of 6,000 jobs and an annual payroll in excess of $350 million would be significant in a population of 400,000, even if there were no further impact. But the economic significance goes far beyond these direct numbers. For example, the second largest export sector in Nova Scotia isn’t seafood or another natural resource – it’s our universities, which generate $840 million annually, primarily through out-of-province enrolment. Fully 40 percent of international students want to stay in Canada, and 65 per cent of those would prefer to live in Halifax after graduation.

The six universities in Halifax range from the tiny Atlantic School of Theology to the diverse professional schools of Dalhousie. Each of them occupies a unique niche, and each of them enriches our community in its own way. A good example is the recent announcement by IBM to make Halifax the location of its Global Delivery Centre in Canada. The choice of Nova Scotia was largely based on the engagement of the universities and community college in working with IBM to provide the right training programs for prospective employees.

For us, that means that the universities and community college are intimately connected to our strategic priorities, and they can be key partners in achieving our economic and social objectives.

Recently we identified the three strategic priorities for the budget as healthy community, economic development and entrepreneurship, and transportation. Each of these affects universities and colleges, and each can be advanced through close cooperation with universities and colleges.

There’s a question I asked during the campaign that you might want to consider in your own communities: “What kind of partner is Halifax to the postsecondary institutions?” Do we truly understand what it means that NSCAD is better known in Copenhagen than in Halifax, as a local art gallery director told me a while ago? Do we know why German Chancellor Angela Merkel dropped in to see for herself and to praise the work done in Dalhousie’s ocean sciences department? And do we think of the universities and the colleges as a partner and a resource?

Too often, the answer is no. Too often, governments, citizens, and business people are blinded by the cost of our postsecondary institutions, without considering the benefits. And there are certainly costs. Nova Scotia’s operating grant to the 10 universities in the province is $324 million. The influx of some 32 000 high-spirited young people into Halifax every September brings with it some challenges. Student housing – and student partying – doesn’t always fit with the generally high-income neighbourhoods where universities tend to be situated. Students put pressure on the affordable housing stock and they add to the alcohol overconsumption and alcohol-fuelled violence in our downtown.

But those costs pale when put against the benefits. These include the $840 million annual export income, or the capacity to attract IBM with 500 knowledge sector jobs. As we gear up for the work of building Canada’s next generation of research and naval ships, we look to the college and universities to provide the highly skilled trades persons and professionals who will design and build the ships, and manage the project.

The benefits go far beyond the economic. University and college faculty and students volunteer in health, social and arts organizations across the community. They attend concerts, invest in art, and share their knowledge through lifelong learning initiatives. They lead us to explore new ways of thinking, and offer new perspectives on old problems, fresh ideas for the future. Universities and colleges also work closely with not-for-profit organizations to advance our understanding of community issues. Students in professional schools like dentistry or law offer affordable services to people in need of them.

In 2005, Halifax and the university presidents signed a charter, or memorandum of understanding, to guide an effective, mutually beneficial working relationship, and enhance the links between them. It identified some initiatives and a couple of these were undertaken, one on transit and one on recreation and lifestyles programming for young people. But, the MOU failed to become established in the culture of civic government as a reflection of an active and continuous partnership. As an example, last year Halifax revised our rinks and arenas strategy, with staff consulting communities and users of existing facilities, considering best practices and state of the art technology.

What they didn’t do was open a conversation with Dalhousie and Saint Mary’s, who were also exploring a rink strategy. But it makes sense to pool our resources, our expertise, and devise a strategy that works for the citizens of Halifax Regional Municipality and for students of two major universities. Following conversations with both university presidents, we have connected Dal and SMU with our planning process, and I know we’ll have a better process.

Unless we consciously incorporate the partnership into our thinking, with joint projects, regular meetings at all levels of the organization, and a continuing practice of communication and exchange, the best MOU document will find its way to the bottom of a drawer.

As we’ve seen in the rink story, we’re beginning to find ways to cooperate on infrastructure to benefit both the institutions and the community. One example is that starting this year, we’ll be hiring 15 to 20 new graduates with the goal of enabling them to get those first vital years of experience that will allow them to move on to other jobs within the region. It also will bring fresh ideas and energy into municipal government and may encourage others to invest in our young talent. Our entire community will reap the rewards.

We still need many of the projects envisioned in the 2005 Charter: a multi-modal transportation plan to move people and goods sustainably, efficiently and safely, a cultural policy that includes a municipal arts council. But, when I spoke to the Chamber of Commerce and highlighted the importance of working with universities and colleges, some eyebrows were raised. It wasn’t that the audience didn’t recognize that universities and colleges are important, but they aren’t often mentioned as a strategic asset in a business audience. In a not-for-profit forum, I think the reaction would have been similar. We all deplore silos, but the pressures of meeting our own deadlines and our own objectives discourage efforts to reach beyond our immediate circle.

We can’t afford to be that insular in our thinking any more. We live and compete in a global marketplace. We have social pressures as populations shift to cities and demographic advantage shifts from developed societies. We have people without jobs and jobs without people. Entrepreneurs with good ideas need scientific, technical or marketing expertise to make them happen.

There is a common ground for universities and colleges to cooperate with government, business, social enterprise, and not-for-profits to achieve mutual or compatible goals. But we won’t find that ground if we stay in our circles and talk to ourselves.

I see the refreshed Charter between Halifax and the six universities as a symbol of that common ground and a guide to our actions in the future. My city is blessed to have a strong postsecondary education presence. Most cities are not so lucky. Every challenge our municipality faces, from demographics to public safety, from mobility of people to revitalization of our downtown, involves postsecondary institutions. Every opportunity we face – economic development, entrepreneurial excellence, social inclusion – involves postsecondary institutions. Every challenge can become an opportunity, and each opportunity brings fresh challenges. The way to address both of them is to partner, to deal with the challenging issues by focussing on the opportunities we share.

I’m proud to be Mayor of an education hub. It is a benefit I do not take for granted. I’m eager to work with the universities and college to take maximum advantage of our joint capacity.

We make each other stronger.

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