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Critics warn a bill proposing universities facing financial hardship suspend collective agreements will harm integrity.Paul Darrow/The Globe and Mail

Universities in Nova Scotia must be prepared to deal with millions of dollars in shortfalls to their budgets, the provincial government says in defending recent measures that have mobilized faculty, staff and students against the Stephen McNeil government.

Last week, the government introduced Bill 100, which will allow universities that face severe financial difficulties to implement revitalization plans that suspend collective agreements and ban strikes for up to 18 months.

Critics say the bill is unconstitutional, infringes on institutions' autonomy and violates academic freedom.

"If research and scholarly work need to be in line with the strategic direction, socially and economically of a government, that interferes with what is known as academic freedom," said Catrina Brown, president of the Dalhousie Faculty Association.

The bill, called the Universities Accountability and Sustainability Act, allows the minister to ask for financial statements and to verify the sustainability of a university's financial operations.

But Labour and Advanced Education Minister Kelly Regan said the goal "is to give the government an early warning system that gives us a clear picture into university finances."

NSCAD University and Acadia University have in the past had to ask for financial help to meet their budgets.

The government, the minister said, must avoid such episodes.

"Nova Scotia's universities are facing a deficit of tens of millions of dollars in just two years' time. We can't afford to make up that deficit via taxpayers' money," she said.

If the government does not agree with a university's plans to solve budgetary shortfalls, it can withhold grants. The April budget increased those grants by 1 per cent over the next four years.

The bill comes as the universities, which have about 90,000 students, grapple with the impact of demographics. The number of people in Nova Scotia between the ages of 18 to 29 is expected to fall by a quarter within 15 years. Schools have compensated by increasing the proportion of international students. At Cape Breton and Saint Mary's, for example, international students make up approximately 30 per cent of the student body, and 18 per cent at Dalhousie.

Along with Bill 100, the government has given university administrations free rein to raise tuition for a one-time market adjustment to fees for domestic students. It has also permanently removed the 3-per-cent tuition cap for international and out-of-province students.

Dalhousie raised its tuition by 3 per cent and is making cuts to faculty and department budgets.

Cape Breton will phase in a fee increase of nearly 20 per cent over four years. Faculty and staff positions will also be reduced.

"It's always regrettable to put tuition up, but we will stay at or below the tuition average for the province," said David Wheeler, Cape Breton University's president. The provisions contemplated by Bill 100 would be a last resort, he added.

"Universities may be headed toward difficult waters, and it is a tool that a board of governors could use if it looked and could not see a way to meet its fiduciary duties. … I think it means achieving accountability so that boards of governors do not need bailouts from the government," Dr. Wheeler said.

He would like the province to adopt a funding model that rewards institutions that perform well.

The bill has passed second reading, and Dr. Brown said that, if it becomes law, it could affect universities' reputations, particularly that of Dalhousie.

"People who are well-known, established scholars would not want to work here. This would not be a university that had the kind of integrity that would draw the kind of students and scholars that a top-notch university should do," she said.

Hearings on the bill begin on Thursday.

"I do want to hear what people think about the bill, and I value the consultation part of it," Ms. Regan said.

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