Nova Scotia

Infrastructure shortfall at Nova Scotia universities tops $1B

Nova Scotia's 10 universities are steeped in history. Many are also in rough shape.

Challenge facing universities 'extraordinarily acute,' says association executive

Like all of the universities in Nova Scotia, the University of King's College in Halifax is facing problems with deferred maintenance. (University of King's College Archives)

Nova Scotia is home to some of the oldest universities in the country. The 10 institutions are steeped in history and tradition.

Many of them are also in rough shape.

Government documents released in response to an access to information request show the schools are facing a combined deficit of more than $600 million in deferred maintenance.

"A number of universities have approached the province for support for capital infrastructure plans to replace or renovate existing infrastructure," according to the briefing book prepared for Advanced Education Minister Brian Wong.

"To balance their budget, universities are delaying spending on the maintenance of aging infrastructure."

Peter Halpin is executive director of the Association of Atlantic Universities. He says deferred maintenance at universities in the province has become a significant issue. (CBC)

But according to the executive director of the Association of Atlantic Universities, the shortfall is much higher that what the briefing note indicates.

"In the projects that we've identified, just in those areas of green energy efficiency, accessibility and digital infrastructure, our last assessment, which was done very recently, shows the deficit to be around $1.3 billion," Peter Halpin said in an interview Tuesday.

"So it's a very significant problem."

Halpin said deferred maintenance, or campus infrastructure renewal, is "the most critical issue" facing universities, and represents his organization's No. 1 priority when it advocates to the provincial and federal governments for support.

The situation represents a financial threat to universities in the province, he said.

"It's no different than if you're a homeowner. You cannot live with a leaky roof or leaky windows, because eventually it affects the integrity of the entire structure."

The organization has spent the last few years trying to make a case to the federal government for investment in campus infrastructure at all Atlantic Canadian universities. They've put a particular emphasis on projects linked to green technology, energy efficiency, digital infrastructure and accessibility, said Halpin.

Advanced Education Minister Brian Wong says the provincial government has been approached by a number of universities seeking support for capital infrastructure. (David Laughlin/CBC)

Provincial governments are important partners in those efforts and Halpin said he's hoping they can be allies for making the case to Ottawa for more support.

The province's minister of advanced education said he's already heard about the issue in his early days as a member of the new provincial government.

In an interview at Province House, Wong said the issue has come up as he's toured universities and met with university presidents. He has more meetings planned with university presidents after the fall sitting at Province House wraps.

"As far as deferred maintenance goes right now, it's just a topic that we're talking about to see how we move forward," he said.

The Tories have promised major cash infusions to help address challenges in the health-care system and affordable housing market, but Wong said that doesn't mean there isn't money for other issues.

Universities receive funding each year from the province through a memorandum of understanding, as well as other allocations. Wong said how those allocations are spent is up to university officials to determine, although that isn't always the case.

The province provided universities with $3.6 million in 2018-19 and $20 million in 2019-20 specifically for deferred maintenance, according to the briefing note.

Public benefits from university infrastructure

Halpin said universities are public institutions and his organization continues to make the case for the province playing an important role in making capital investments. He said the public and communities are able to benefit from access to things such as sports and recreation facilities, meeting space, libraries and art galleries.

While there is a correlation between maintenance needs and the size of the universities, Halpin said the age of the institutions is also a factor. He pointed to the University of King's College in Halifax — one of the smallest but oldest universities in Canada — as an example.

"They have some real challenges in terms of maintaining the infrastructure on that campus — not just maintaining it, but getting it to a quality that, you know, meets the expectations of today's students.

"And that's no different for many of our universities across the province."

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