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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.

"'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."

Another tiny school with a distinct identity is University of King's College, which is associated with Dalhousie University. Founded in 1789, it offers students a demanding and wide-ranging Foundation Year program, an intensive four-course program of reading that includes everything from the Epic of Gilgamesh to present-day literature and philosophy. Rounding off the list is the Atlantic School of Theology, which is affiliated with Saint Mary's University. Its 155 students are largely mature students and help replenish the pulpits throughout Atlantic Canada. Halifax is also home to the Nova Scotia Community College, which provides vocational training for 25,000 students in 13 campuses across the province.

So why do so many young people opt to come to Halifax for their education? The simple answer is that "in Halifax, you get the energy of a large city and you get the familiarity of a small city," said Aaron Vomberg, a Dalhousie student from Waterloo, Ont. He added his close contact with his profs and frequent field work ensure he's getting a first-class education. Shannon Zimmerman, a fifth-year political science/international development student at Dalhousie and a native of Elmira, Ont., adds that "for someone coming from Ontario, Halifax has an atmosphere and culture that is different than anywhere else in Canada.'' She likes the student ghetto that bustles in the wooden houses of the tree-lined South End, the coffee shops and the variety of university activities that range from sports to ethnic societies. Dalhousie, for example, has 250 student societies.

Many of the high points of the city's social calendar revolve around the university. That includes the city's sports life—university games are among the premier shows in town. Saint Mary's used to host the Atlantic Bowl in football each autumn, and now is a regular host of its replacement, the Uteck Bowl, named for late SMU football coach, Larry Uteck.

The Halifax Metro Centre used to be the annual venue for the national college basketball championships and although the Canadian Interuniversity Sport now rotates the championships among other cities, it will return to Halifax in 2011. "Talking to university basketball coaches across the country, they can hardly wait to come back to Halifax," said Peter Halpin, a basketball star with SMU's national championship teams of the 1970s and now the executive director of the Association of Atlantic Universities. "It's a real university sports town. There's a real connection with the fans here."

Like all universities, each of the Halifax schools has formal and informal traditions that brighten up student life. Saint Mary's has its International Night each winter; NSCAD hosts the annual Nocturne festival each autumn, where NSCAD students guide Haligonians through the city's art treasures between 6 p.m. and midnight. Then there are the less formal events, such as Dalhousie computer science students getting together for "Geek Beers" once a week.

The mention of beer brings to mind the other facet of Halifax life that is famous among students, even if officials shy away from discussing it openly. The fact is, students here enjoy the nightlife, from the pubs in heritage buildings like Lower Deck and the Split Crow, to the late-night dance halls like the Palace, to the late-late-night munch fests on Pizza Corner. "You've got to be careful advertising Halifax for its bar scene, but it is a pretty good bar scene," said SMU president Dr. Dodds. He and others say that the boisterousness of students can often grate on local residents, but the universities have implemented several programs to encourage their students to be good neighbours, and there have been fewer complaints in the last couple of years. What several students officially do mention about night life in Halifax is that it tends to be safe—all the more so because the Halifax Regional Police Department has worked with the universities to designate "safe-walk corridors," which have extra police patrol throughout the nights.

The fact that the municipal government goes out of its way to accommodate students illustrates how important these universities are to Halifax. Essentially, the universities are Halifax's economic engine. Dalhousie alone spends $120 million a year on research and development, and Nova Scotia's universities overall account for most of the R&D in the province. They are massive industries unto themselves, and provide the future staffing for local enterprises. When Research In Motion Ltd. and a host of financial institutions set up offices in Halifax in 2005-2006, they all cited the trained work force coming out of the universities as reasons for coming to Nova Scotia.

Advocates of Richard Florida's economic ideas (which include the notion that successful cities are the product of vibrant cultural bases) note that a huge swath of the city's artists, actors and musicians attend or attended the universities. Many teach at the colleges, allowing them to practise their art on the side. And if there is a debate on civic issues in the media, the experts cited in the news reports are more often than not university professors.

NSCAD's Mr. Smith adds that his college's students contribute more to the economy than people realize, as 75% of NSCAD graduates engage in entrepreneurial pursuits. Arianne Pollet-Brannen, an NSCAD grad who came to Halifax from a town near Bruges, Belgium, added that many of these graduates maintain their association with the college. She, for example, continues to use studio space provided by NSCAD and the Halifax Regional Municipality to pursue her work, including the creation of costumes for an opera with the working title "Electropera" to be staged at a local theatre in February. Leaving NSCAD, she said, is like "weaning from the breast—there is just such a network of people who understand what you do."

And finally, the universities bring Nova Scotia what it needs more than anything today—youth. In the 2006 census, more than 15% of Nova Scotians were listed as 65 or older, the second-highest rate in Canada behind Saskatchewan. The universities bring young people into Halifax, and one-quarter of these newcomers remain after they graduate. "One of the key things that people need to understand about the universities is we are the No. 1 immigration magnet in Nova Scotia," said Dalhousie president Dr. Tom Traves.

Mr. Halpin, a Toronto native, describes himself as typical—he came to the city 38 years ago, learned to love the place and never left. What's notable about his experience is he has never ended his affiliation with the universities. "Having six universities is quite unique in a city of 360,000 people," he said. "People have a very positive reaction to that, because the universities are a magnet, they're a creative hub." He paused a moment and added: "Every September, the city floods with students, and all of a sudden the energy level goes up."

NSCAD University (Nova Scotia College of Art and Design)

Undergraduates: 1,000

Academics: This esteemed little school likes to emphasize the practicality of its curriculum. It's proud of its artist vitality, but it also teaches a practical and entrepreneurial mindset.

Campus: Very old and very new. Half the campus is in the heritage-designated Granville Mall in the heart of Halifax, the other half in the new harbourfront studios it rents from the Port Authority.

Student life: NSCAD students and faculty tend to be cheerful and focused, delighted to be practicing what they love in a city with a vibrant bohemianism.

Dalhousie University

Undergraduates: 11,600

Academics: Best known for its science programs and professional schools like law, dentistry and medicine, Dal also boasts of being Atlantic Canada's largest research university. It stresses field courses, where the students forego the classroom to do hands-on research in the big wide world.

Campus: Think Ivy. Its old black-slate academic buildings crowned by a stately clock tower, create an ambience of august learning. More recent structures now populate the West End campus but have done nothing to detract from its grandeur.

Student life: Dal students tend to study. Yet its size and position close to downtown mean they're rarely far from the carnival of Argyle Street. Thousands of undergrads flock to study here from Ontario and further afield.

University of King's College

Undergraduates: 2,000

Academics: Famed for its Foundation Year Program, a study of civilization from the dawn of time to present day. It also has a renowned journalism school.

Campus: Its attractive stone dorms and gym are tucked into a little pocket of the Dalhousie campus. Blink and you may miss it.

Student life: King's students do all things Dal students do (other than deny that there's anything exclusive about King's).

Mount St. Vincent University

Undergraduates: 2, 850

Academics: Offers small classes in a curriculum that focuses on practical training for such disciplines as public relations, tourism and nutrition.

Campus: The only Halifax university not on the peninsula, Mount St. Vincent is located in suburban Clayton Park, running up a hill overlooking Bedford Basin. Like St. Mary's, the buildings are recent vintage.

Student life: Though it is co-ed, the Mount is still known as a woman's university. Its campus life is a bit more cerebral than the others as it is removed from the buzz of downtown.

Saint Mary's University

Undergraduates: 6,650

Academics: This former Jesuit institution now emphasizes its business school and international programs.

Campus: There's a big football field and a big sports facility, around which they managed to squeeze some classrooms and dorms.

Student life: Jockstraps abound. When SMU students aren't boasting about their football and basketball teams, they're insisting the university's academic standards are as high as Dal's.

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