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Halifax: the ultimate college town Add to ...

Three years ago, Mike Mercer decided to return to university after a two-year stint in Taiwan. But instead of returning to the University of Ottawa where he'd spent a year already, the 25-year-old decided to study at Saint Mary's University in Halifax. Back in Canada, the reasons for his choice were confirmed. He had some questions about his Asian studies courses, so he called Professor Charles Beaupré at the university, and they ended up in a brief game of telephone tag. When Dr. Beaupré later left a voicemail, he invited this student he'd never met before to call again and even left his home phone number.

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"'Wow,' I thought, 'a professor just left me a home phone number,'" said Mr. Mercer, now a fourth-year student and a vice-president on student council at Saint Mary's. "That could happen for a graduate student but for a general undergrad it was unheard of at an Ontario university. There, you're just a number.''

Mr. Mercer says he likes to recount the tale to show why he and so many other students from across Canada and around the world come to study at one of the six universities in Halifax. It is this intimacy and friendliness, as well as academics, that keep drawing students to this city of 360,000—undoubtedly the only Canadian city that can say it has more universities than Cineplex movie theatres.

The six universities—Dalhousie, Saint Mary's, Mount St. Vincent, University of King's College, NSCAD University and the Atlantic School of Theology—have about 23,000 full-time students and another 7,000 attend school part-time. If they all merged—a touchy subject in some circles—they would still form a relatively small school, smaller than University of Western Ontario.

The schools have much in common. None of them gets the kind of attention as their provincial rivals Acadia University in Wolfville or St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish. Nor do they get a mention in the debate about funding for the so-called Big 5 research-intensive universities. They are all old—half date back to Queen Victoria's reign, and those are the young ones. And none are cheap. According to Statistics Canada, in 2008-2009, Nova Scotia had the highest average tuition of any province at $5,932—that's almost three times the level in Quebec. Yet their differences are also remarkable and contribute to Halifax's vibrant diversity.

With 13,000 full-time students, Dalhousie is the largest and probably most prestigious of the Halifax schools. It once occupied the current site of Halifax City Hall, but moved to the west end in the 1880s in a deal that granted the university five acres of land and Dal students the right to, among other things, drive cattle through the Grand Parade in front of City Hall.

Dal's pride is its professional schools, especially the medical school, which is Canada's leading neurosurgical academic unit. (One local businessman pointed out that Dalhousie improves health care in Nova Scotia because physicians can refer patients to specialists, especially neurologists.) It also specializes in oceanography, and the Worm Lab, named for iconic oceanographer and Dal professor Boris Worm, is a world leader in marine biodiversity.

Saint Mary's is the brawniest of the bunch, producing perennially strong sports teams, including a football team that has played in half of the last 10 Vanier Cup championships, winning two. The university is also the most international of the local schools, with 18% of its students coming from abroad, and boasts a particular strength in international business. The university even arranges to have international students met at the airport. SMU strives to develop an international perspective among its students, a message that is reinforced by the tradition of international trade in this port city, says president J. Colin Dodds. "If you want to join the world, this is where you come because it is one world within a city block," he said.

Set on a hill overlooking Bedford Basin, Mount Saint Vincent with its high percentage of female students and faculty has carved out a niche for itself in fields such as tourism and public relations. "What we've learned from our students is that the reason people come to us is not that it's mainly female but because of the small class sizes," said Janet MacMillan, who completed her term as chair of the Mount board of governors this year.

With fewer than 900 full-time students, NSCAD University, formerly the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, has two bases—elegant Victorian terraced buildings surrounding Granville Mall and a modern harbourfront complex. NSCAD's faculty and students are major contributors to the creative industries of the city. The students exhibit their work at the Anna Leonowens Gallery (named for the tutor of the Siam royal family, fictionalized in Anna and the King of Siam, who was a co-founder of NSCAD's precursor, the Victoria School of Art and Design), and their designs permeate the city. "NSCAD is not just a whole bunch of artists huddled together," said president David Smith, himself an NSCAD grad. "Our students infiltrate every corner of the city—everything that is interesting here is affected by NSCAD."

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