10/08/2014 02:14 EDT | Updated 12/08/2014 05:59 EST

Faced with $50M funding gap, Nova Scotia universities under review again

HALIFAX - Nova Scotia's university system will come under review for the second time in less than five years as it struggles to keep a lid on costs, the provincial government said Wednesday.

By 2018, there will be a $50 million funding gap in what the province's universities require and what the government is able to pay, Advanced Education Minister Kelly Regan said.

Regan said the government now gives Nova Scotia's 10 universities about $500 million annually in total.

"Our university system is not sustainable as it currently exists," said Regan. "There will have to be some changes and we want to make sure that we are doing things better."

Public feedback will be sought through meetings over the next month involving students, parents, businesses and faculty members, Regan said, adding that the government is already in discussions with university presidents about what needs to be done to bolster the financially strained system.

Regan said she has some ideas on how to improve the situation but she declined to reveal them. She also wouldn't say whether she thinks there are too many universities in the province, a notion that has come up in past discussions on the future of degree-granting institutions in Nova Scotia.

The government said the information gathered during the review will help develop a strategic paper outlining the long-term direction for universities and the next memorandum of understanding between the schools and the province. The current funding agreement is scheduled to expire at the end of the school year.

The consultation will also look at how to make post-secondary education more affordable for students, Regan said.

The previous government also launched a review of the university system that resulted in a 188-page report delivered in September 2010. In it, economist Tim O'Neill listed a number of recommendations, including one that identified four schools as potential candidates for mergers with other institutions.

One of those schools — the Nova Scotia Agricultural College — merged with Dalhousie University in 2012.

O'Neill also called for expanded collaboration between the government and the universities to address declining enrolment.

Progressive Conservative Leader Jamie Baillie said while new ways are needed to make universities more accountable to taxpayers and better suited to helping the province compete economically, another study isn't the answer.

He cited his position from last year's election campaign that universities need long-term and stable funding through five-year agreements that would require them to be fiscally responsible while adapting to the province's economic needs.

"Real action is what I'm looking for," he said.