02/20/2013 12:59 EST | Updated 04/22/2013 05:12 EDT

NSCAD University future in doubt as pressure builds to get fiscal house in order

HALIFAX - The future of Canada's oldest independent arts university has been cast into uncertainty as it contends with growing pressure to cut costs, increasingly tense labour negotiations and talk of merging programs with other schools.

NSCAD University, formerly the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, has cut jobs, eliminated some classes and raised tuition fees in recent years in an effort to get its fiscal house in order. And more belt-tightening is expected despite outcry from faculty and students.

The Nova Scotia government has asked the cash-strapped school to submit a three- to five-year sustainability plan in exchange for about $1.3 million to cover its deficit this fiscal year, says NSCAD's acting president, Dan O'Brien.

The province has provided funding in the past to pay off the school's deficits. But this time, the government has asked NSCAD to devise a plan by March 15 that aims to pay down its $18 million debt, reduce classroom space and explore affiliations with other schools, O'Brien says.

He says that is puzzling because provincially funded studies that are looking at NSCAD's spatial needs and possible affiliations with Dalhousie University and Saint Mary's University won't be completed until later this spring.

"The wisdom of asking us to project conclusions that precede the completion of the studies escapes us," he says.

"We have every intention in attempting to comply, but we want to make abundantly clear that we will not be able to meet the conditions that they have laid down in the time allotted."

The government declined to confirm details of the proposal but said it wants NSCAD to come up with a plan to address its financial problems.

"The province is committed to the continued success of NSCAD as an excellent and autonomous arts university," Advanced Education Minister Marilyn More said in an email.

"There are significant financial challenges to be overcome, which were identified as early as three years ago. Some progress has been made and we have always been clear about what we expected from NSCAD. I have confidence that the board and senior management will provide the leadership needed to ensure NSCAD's future."

But Karin Cope, a professor of art history and critical studies, said the government's demands make it difficult for the 126-year-old school to remain independent.

"Part of our labour here is to persuade the provincial government that they can't turn this particular apple into a plum," Cope said.

"They're not really going to reap more and better results by changing the nature of what NSCAD is."

Cope, an organizer of a group called the Friends of NSCAD, said she hopes the government will consider working together to come up with a plan to pay off the debt without cutting staff or selling the school's Granville campus in downtown Halifax.

"Further attrition is going to be damaging and is dramatically going to affect our ability to attract students and keep them at NSCAD."

Alvin Comiter, president of NSCAD's faculty union, said morale among the school's staff has been dwindling as pressures from the government intensify.

"The government is putting a gun to our heads," Comiter said.

The union, which represents about 110 full- and part-time faculty members, is in contract negotiations with the university. Those talks hit an impasse last week, and Comiter has warned that picket lines could be set up March 6.

"When we signed our last 18-month contract, we thought that we would be negotiating a new contract with a clearer picture of what the future of NSCAD would look like," he said.

"We still have no idea what's going to be forced upon the university."

Elise Graham, a fifth-year student at the university and the provincial chairwoman of the Canadian Federation of Students, said her peers are "worried."

She said students are calling for staffing levels and programs to be kept.

NSCAD has also been tasked with finding a new president, but O'Brien said he wouldn't be surprised if he was asked to stay on beyond May 16, when his term ends, given the circumstances.