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Frank McKenna was premier of New Brunswick from 1987 to 1997, and Canada’s ambassador to the United States in 2005-06.ANDREW VAUGHAN/The Canadian Press

Frank McKenna clearly wanted to get a few things off his chest as he outlined a provocative vision for universities as the new natural resource for the Atlantic.

He called on governments to rethink capping tuition, to legislate professors back to work in the event of a strike, and to view universities as "profit centres, not cost centres."

"I know that my views will not be politically correct but I'm afraid that the magnitude of our challenge requires bluntness," he said, speaking to 420 people at a dinner Saturday night in Halifax honouring Sean Riley, who is retiring as president of St. Francis Xavier University, the small liberal arts university in Antigonish, N.S., after 18 years at the helm.

Mr. McKenna, the former New Brunswick Liberal premier, ambassador to Washington and now a Bay Street businessman, is a St. FX graduate and the former chair of the university's board of governors. Since leaving politics, he has continued to speak up for the region – for example, he was a strong and early proponent of the west-to-east pipeline.

His speech comes as Nova Scotians are debating how to rescue rural communities, which are losing their traditional industries – fishing, farming and forestry. Nova Scotia and the other three Atlantic provinces have a number of respected universities – and Mr. McKenna urged that these be exploited as a way of reviving the struggling provinces.

About 90,000 full- and part-time students attend Atlantic universities, which employ 16,000 faculty members. Mr. McKenna noted that the total payroll is more than $1-billion and they generate almost $500-million in federal and provincial taxes.

"Our universities are a blessing, not a burden," he said. "We must look at them as profit centres, not cost centres."

He criticized previous governments for not properly funding universities, reserving his strongest rebuke for the recently defeated NDP government in Nova Scotia.

"As premier of New Brunswick, I was always jealous of Nova Scotia for its abundance of high-quality universities, which provided an enormous enrichment to the economy of the province. I'm no longer jealous," he said, giving credit to the financially-challenged New Brunswick government for increasing funding for universities an average of 2 per cent annually over the past five years.

He compared this to Darrell Dexter's NDP government in Nova Scotia, which cut university funding by 3 per cent over three years, maintained a cap on tuition and refused to "include university employees in its wage-restraint policy."

"That was short-sighted in the extreme," he said, calling the policy to cap tuition "wrong-headed."

"It goes from stupid to destructive when the tuition cap is coupled with transfer cuts," he argued. "Cut-rate tuition fees equal cut-rate education."

Nova Scotia universities have the highest tuitions in the country, he said, and the highest participation rates. Mr. McKenna compared this to Quebec and its low tuition rates and equally low participation rates.

"It's very simple. You value what you pay for," he said.

Mr. McKenna was scathing about faculty unions, noting there have been 12 strikes in the last 15 years, including the recent strike by 550 University of New Brunswick faculty members, who were off the job for three weeks.

"Some of the demands border on the obscene," he argued, mentioning UNB's faculty demand for a 26-per-cent increase over four years. "This was in a province where 60 per cent of the university budget is funded by taxpayers, and in a province which recorded a deficit of $564-million."

He called the faculty unions' behaviour "reckless" and on par with "conduct that drove Air Canada to bankruptcy and General Motors and Chrysler to bankruptcy."

His suggestion is that governments – which provide universities most of their funding – force wage restraint and legislate faculty members back to work "when the damage gets too great."

Foreign students should be aggressively pursued, he also suggested.

"We need to start selling. And we should do it as a region. We need these students, we need their money and we need their minds; we need their energy," said Mr. McKenna.

This regional approach is compelling, said Dave Graham, the executive director of Brigadoon Children's Camp Society, a Nova Scotia camp for children with chronic illnesses. He is also a St. FX graduate.

"We do need to collaborate as a region in order to accomplish big things," Mr. Graham said. "We need to look around and find like-minded people, industries and groups who can come together to further their goals and the goals of every province in Atlantic Canada."

Jane Taber is The Globe's Atlantic bureau chief.