Nova Scotia

Some N.S. universities scrimping in anticipation of pandemic-related shortfalls

Final enrolment numbers won’t be counted until the middle of September, but some Nova Scotia universities are already bracing for a decline with cuts to salary budgets, pay freezes and layoffs.

Administrators cutting budgets as they wait for fall enrolment figures

Many Nova Scotia lecture halls will be empty this fall as universities are sticking with online instruction because of COVID-19. (CBC)

Some Nova Scotia universities are tightening their purse strings as they brace for possible revenue shortfalls because of COVID-19.

Administrators at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax recently directed department heads to cut 30 per cent from salary budgets for part-time faculty for the fall semester. 

Meanwhile, across town, Saint Mary's University has instituted a pay freeze for senior managers and administrators for the rest of the fiscal year.

St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish has laid off all its casual employees and has cancelled typical summer hiring because of lost conference business.

Representatives from each of the three schools say they've made the cuts as they brace for a possible dip in student enrolment.

Revenue losses will be known in September

Labi Kousoulis, Nova Scotia's advanced education minister, told reporters last week that his department has been in daily contact with university administrators during the pandemic, and none have asked for provincial aid.

But the real test, he said, will come in mid-September, when the intake numbers are tallied.

"It's still too early because they're working very hard at ensuring they get as many students back and as many new students as they can into the universities," Kousoulis said.

He added that some university presidents have told him they are calling prospective first-year students directly to promote their institutions.

Kousoulis said he thought universities might actually benefit from the pandemic-induced economic downturn, as people who've lost their jobs look to improve their skills and bolster their resumés.

Advanced Education Minister Labi Kousoulis said no universities have asked for aid because of the pandemic. (Craig Paisley/CBC)

Alex Usher, president of the Toronto-based consultancy firm Higher Education Strategy Associates, said enrolment surges during times of recession usually happen because industries are shifting and workers need to learn new skills.

He didn't think COVID-19 presented a comparable situation to past recessions.

"The training imperative is not — I don't think it's quite as clear," he said.

By Usher's estimation, universities will have a hard time attracting new students this fall, and enrolment drops are inevitable.

"That date hasn't come yet where we know what the answer is, [but] I suspect a lot of first-year students are just gonna say, 'I prefer to defer.' So that's a big problem," he said.

Online university a tough sell

Usher said he believes universities have been doing their best to transition to online teaching — a pandemic-induced change that many Nova Scotia universities are carrying into the fall semester — but, "a lot of consumers are not going to buy that." 

Usher predicted domestic enrolment will remain relatively stable, but when it comes to international enrolment, he said, "I think most people think it's going to be nasty."

International students make up about 18 per cent of all post-secondary students in Nova Scotia — a proportion that's been growing for at least the last five years, according to figures from the Maritime Provinces Higher Education Commission. 

A decline in international student enrolment is one of the concerns expressed last month by a coalition of university unions that asked for government aid to avoid job cuts and tuition hikes.

The coalition said the budget cuts at MSVU could amount to the loss of about 100 part-time instructor contracts.

Karen Harper, president of CUPE Local 3912, which is part of the coalition and represents part-time instructors at SMU, MSVU and Dalhousie University, said the union is "very disappointed" in the cuts. It has asked the university to repeal the directive.

Julie McMullin, vice-president academic and provost at MSVU, said in an email that the university isn't cancelling any existing contracts. 

But Harper said she considers the cuts "the equivalent of layoffs" because regular instructors would have been expecting to be hired back.

Harper said it will be a blow to many instructors, whose work in academia is already precarious, and she thinks it could be a blow to students, too. 

A question of quality

"Their response is quite backwards," Harper said.

"In going ahead with these budget cuts, they lower the quality of education for the students, and the students may not then want to go ahead with their university education if they know there are going to be fewer courses for them to choose from, or if there are going to be higher class sizes."

Harper said she would like to see universities run deficits before cutting from academics.

Kousoulis also said that compromising the quality of education would only hurt universities in the long run. But, he added, "that's not a concern of mine."

"I know that they work very hard to provide the best programs they can and to have the best staff that they can provide in those programs."


Taryn Grant


Taryn Grant is a Halifax-based reporter for CBC Nova Scotia. You can email her with tips and feedback at