The New Brunswick PSE Crisis

Lesley Balcom (UNBF) and Regena Farnsworth (AUNBT VP/UNBSJ) hold the AUNBT banner in Saint John, October 13th, 2007.

Lesley Balcom (UNBF) and Regena Farnsworth (AUNBT VP/UNBSJ) hold the AUNBT banner in Saint John, October 13th, 2007.

Early in 2007, after lobbying from UNB, Premier Graham appointed Commissioners Rick Miner and Jacques L’Écuyer to study post-secondary education in New Brunswick. In response to the commission’s call for appearances and briefs, many UNB entities met the commission and offered extensive written submissions. Among them was the AUNBT Submission to the Commission on Post-Secondary Education.

On 14 September the commissioners issued their report, Advantage New Brunswick. It proposed that the existing “hierarchy of differences” that characterized post-secondary education in New Brunswick be transformed into a true system, the great purpose of which would be to facilitate the training of workers for jobs in industry and business. To accomplish this it recommended, in part, that several community colleges and university campuses be abolished and that their remains be fashioned into three hybrid “polytechnics”. Among the university campuses on the hit-list was UNB-Saint John. The Irving press and elements in the Liberal Party supported the “polytechnic” recommendation strongly.

At once, indignant New Brunswickers responded with the largest demonstrations in favour of access to liberal education that Canada has ever witnessed. Through the fall of 2007 literally thousands of students, university workers and just plain citizens took to the streets. In Edmundston there was a march on the Liberal Party’s annual meeting. In Fredericton there was a march on the Legislature. The epicentre of public mobilization was Saint John, where the campus roused the community into demonstrations, letter-writing and many forms of education. In this campaign AUNBT members were involved extensively. For an archive of demonstration photographs and videos see Living in Interesting Times.

Here are just a few of the dozens of hostile critiques that Advantage New Brunswick provoked:

Late in the fall of 2007 the Liberal government, running scared, sought to defuse anger by handing the report for reconsideration to a taskforce of the four university presidents and three community college principals (ie, public servants) working in secret and under close watch by a deputy minister. The recommendations of these Presidents and Principals, finally released on 26 June 2008, focussed on the perceived training needs of industry filtered through the rhetoric of the “self-sufficiency” agenda. To mollify the presidents of UNB and Moncton, the group jettisoned the notion of turning the Saint John, Edmundston and Shippagan campuses into polytechnics.

Remarkably, however, in return for the dream of half a billion dollars of new public funding the university presidents surrendered the great principle of university autonomy. In multiple objectionable ways, academic programs and planning would now be subject to the whims of the bureaucrats and politicians of the day.

On the same day that the Presidents’ and Principals’ Report was made public, the province issued its Action Plan to Transform Post-Secondary Education in New Brunswick. Predictably, the Action Plan accepted the surrender of autonomy while promising the universities and colleges less than one-fifth of the funding sought. Like the Presidents’ and Principals’ Report, the Action Plan was prepared entirely in secret. Two weeks later the responsible minister announced that “debate” over post-secondary policy in New Brunswick was now over. It was time for action.

The Action Plan’s alarming attack on university autonomy began a new round of agitation over post-secondary education in New Brunswick. Now it was not three campuses that were in issue. Now it was our very character as universities. At once AUNBT responded with stern critiques:

Since the province released its Action Plan its only discernible “action” has been to retire the deputy minister who was the Action Plan’s principal author. She was “seconded” to UNB, either to help implement the Plan (per S. Graham) or to work on anything but the Plan (per J. McLaughlin). Dismayed that, after 18 months of public discussion the provincial government remains so uncomprehending, AUNBT members remain vigilant.

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