Nova Scotia universities law panned as 'heavy-handed'

The McNeil government's legislation to increase financial accountability for universities received scorching criticism Thursday as an attack on union rights and university independence.

Liberal government makes last-minute changes as bill criticized

Kelly Regan, the Minister of Labour and Advanced Education, has said the new universities bill will give her department more ability to act if a university gets into financial trouble and needs help digging out of the hole. (CBC)

The McNeil government's legislation to increase financial accountability for universities received scorching criticism Thursday as an attack on union rights and university independence.

"Bill 100 gives the province sweeping powers to restructure our schools while suppressing stakeholder input," Michaela Sam of the Canadian Federation of Students said at a law amendments committee examining Bill 100.

The legislation would allow Nova Scotia universities to trigger a so-called revitalization period by claiming it is facing a significant operating deficit in the next five years.

During this revitalization period, which would last between 12 and 18 months, strikes would be banned — as would new collective agreements.

"It's heavy-handed and ham-fisted," Colin Sutton, a web designer at Saint Mary's University, said during the committee meeting.

The Liberals introduced amendments on Thursday removing a clause that banned grievances from being heard during a financial restructuring, but university faculty and student groups still denounced the bill.

Gordon Forsyth, a labour lawyer, warned the bill is unconstitutional because it allows an employer to unilaterally walk away from a collective agreement.

"It would be hard to imagine a more grievous unbalancing of the constitutionally protected right to meaningful collective bargaining. The playing field is completely tipped in favour of the employer," said Forsyth.

'We're already seeing universities take steps'

The new bill will require a restructured university to align its research and funding decisions with the economic priorities of the provincial government. There would be no requirement for academic freedom on campus — only a requirement it may be considered.

Scott Stewart of the Cape Breton University Faculty Association says the effects of Bill 100 are already being felt.

This week, the university's board of governors imposed a 21 per cent tuition hike and and five per cent to 10 per cent faculty and staff cut over the next five years.

"That budget and that revitalisation plan would not have been put forward without the threat of this bill hanging over us," Stewart said.

"We're already seeing universities take steps," Kelly Regan, the Minister of Advanced Education, admitted Thursday.

The government is happy to see restraint measures underway on campus. Universities receive about $380 million a year from the province.

This week, the University of King's College froze wages.

"We want the presidents to manage their institutions and they can't keep coming back to Nova Scotian taxpayers to make up the shortfall when they are not doing that," Regan said.

No administration official from any of Nova Scotia's 10 universities appeared at the committee to speak about the bill.

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