Nova Scotia

As Nova Scotia teachers nix reference letters, universities rethink applications

Universities are considering dropping a reference letter requirement for Nova Scotia students applying for scholarships and programs because teachers embroiled in a contract dispute with the province are refusing to write the letters during work-to-rule.

Scholarship, program applications often require a reference letter, but teachers aren't writing them

Applying for a post-secondary scholarship usually involves submitting a reference letter from a teacher. That's easier said than done in Nova Scotia, where teachers are following work-to-rule job action. (Mark Felix/The Orange County Register/Associated Press)

Some Maritime universities and colleges are reconsidering a key requirement for high school students applying for scholarships and programs in light of ongoing job action by Nova Scotia teachers.

As part of its work-to-rule campaign, the Nova Scotia Teachers Union has advised its members not to write reference letters for graduating students hoping to apply for scholarships.

Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax is one post-secondary institution leaning toward a different approach to its scholarship application policy.

Normally an application for the university's prestigious President's Scholarship must include a letter of reference from a teacher, principal, vice-principal or guidance counsellor.

Halifax's Mount Saint Vincent University says it will take a look at its scholarship application requirements given the ongoing contract dispute between the province's teachers and the government. (Mount Saint Vincent University/Facebook)

But the committee that oversees scholarships at the university will meet mid-month to discuss whether to waive that requirement for Nova Scotia students if the contract dispute between the NSTU and the government continues.

"This year, we won't disadvantage any applicants who can't obtain those letters due to work-to-rule," said communications manager Gillian Batten in an e-mail to CBC News.

Accommodating students' needs

The President's Scholarship pays for all tuition, residence and meal plan costs. It could be worth more than $50,000 over a four-year program.

Under work-to-rule, it's expected that teachers in Nova Scotia will arrive 20 minutes before classes begin and leave 20 minutes after school ends for the day. They will also not perform clerical duties or perform data-entry tasks.

The teachers' union is standing behind its recommendation that members refuse to write reference letters.

"Writing reference letters does not fall under the contract therefore teachers have been asked not to provide them," the union said in an e-mail.

"It is our understanding that in many cases these are no longer required by [the] university. We're assuming that universities will be able [to] accommodate the needs of students based on the current job action in Nova Scotia."

Big scholarships on the line

Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S., says a meeting has been planned to discuss what a contract dispute involving the province's teachers means for prospective students applying for scholarships. (CBC)

In Wolfville, N.S., the committee in charge of scholarships at Acadia University hopes to meet soon to discuss the issue.

To get an entrance scholarship, applicants need two letters of reference, one of which must be academic. That includes trying to win the university's top undergraduate award, the Chancellor's Scholarship, worth up to $40,000.

"The scholarship application process, including the reference letter requirement, falls under the purview of our senate," said spokesman Scott Roberts. "The committee that oversees this will make a decision this week assuming the work-to-rule situation continues." 

Program acceptance

Some programs at the Nova Scotia Community College, notably screen arts and (video) game development, also require letters of reference.

Christine Arsenault, director of recruitment and admissions, said the college would be willing to conditionally accept an applicant without a letter, as long as the student could come up with one by the time the program starts in September.

"We cannot bypass an admission requirement. Admission requirements stand and must be met before the beginning of a program," she said.

"However, in certain cases we may be able to have the discussion about when we may be able to obtain a reference letter, and provide the opportunity for the application to continue while we waited for that reference letter."

Application rules reviewed in N.B.

Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B., has waived its requirement for a reference letter for Nova Scotians who want to enroll in its bachelor of music program. 

The Nova Scotia Teachers Union has advised its members not to write reference letters for graduating students. (The Canadian Press)

"The department of music will waive this requirement for Nova Scotia students who do not have a private instructor and are not able to get a letter of reference from a high school music instructor teacher due to the work-to-rule action," said spokeswoman Aloma Jardine.

According to Jardine, the requirement of an academic reference letter for its top scholarships may also be reviewed.  The university offers six Bell Scholarships valued at $48,000 ($12,000 per year) and five Bell Achievement Awards valued at $36,000 ($9,000 per year). 

"The registrar's office is aware of this issue and will be discussing it with the Bell Scholarship committee in the near future to determine the best approach for Nova Scotia students this year."