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Universities pick their priorities for infrastructure renewal

Deadline for bids was March 31, but the federal government still must decide when, where and how the money will flow


There is excitement and relief among Canada’s university administrators over the federal government’s planned multi-billion dollar investment in postsecondary education infrastructure. But that sentiment is likely tinged with some anxiety as they still don’t know exactly where the money will flow and how many campuses will benefit.

The two-year, $2-billion investment – termed the Knowledge Infrastructure Fund – will go a long way to address a mounting backlog of deferred maintenance that the Canadian Association of University Business Officers has said amounts to over $5 billion.

The federal government will pay half the cost of approved projects; the difference must be covered by some combination of funding from provincial and municipal governments, universities themselves and private partners.

McMaster University President Peter George was pleased with the program, simply because university infrastructure has been neglected for so long. “To have a dedicated fund to support infrastructure needs in universities and colleges is, I think, a tremendous step forward and I think the federal government is to be congratulated on that,” he said, before listing close to a dozen projects that McMaster hopes will receive funds.

The program is targeted towards shovel-ready projects that encourage research and development, create and maintain jobs to stimulate local economies, and directly support the federal science and technology strategy. When he launched the program in Halifax on March 9, Industry Minister Tony Clement stressed that the government wants money to flow as soon as possible.

“To break ground on these projects quickly, we have asked the provinces and territories to identify priorities where work could begin immediately. We are taking action now to reduce red tape and needless duplication.”

Applications for the first round of funding were due at the end of March. That left universities scrambling to come up with their own priorities, find matching funds, work to receive provincial support, and then hope for the best at the federal level.

The Council of Nova Scotia University Presidents worked together to provide the provincial government with a list of priorities that contained a single infrastructure project at each of its members’ campuses. The 11 priorities identified by the council would cost just over $118 million.

“Even prior to the emergence of the federal program, we had been working on this focused approach in order to encourage the provincial government to make much higher investments,” said Sean Riley, president of St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia.

In Manitoba, the Council on Post-Secondary Education has been tasked with compiling universities’ individual priorities, but there is no active collaboration between institutions similar to that in Nova Scotia. “When we only have two weeks [to assemble applications], we haven’t got time to coordinate projects between us,” said Scott Lamont, Brandon University’s vice-president of finance and administration.

Mr. Lamont said that the most pressing concern on his campus is an aging residence – a project that he thinks is unlikely to qualify for this program, given the focus on initiatives that enhance research and development in science and technology.

But Brandon’s residence might not be counted out by the federal government. A spokesman for Industry Canada said in an e-mail that projects don’t have to meet all criteria in order to be funded, and that all criteria are weighted equally. That could leave the door open to a host of projects at less research-intensive institutions.

Trent University President Bonnie Patterson hopes that any university – urban or rural, large or small – with a project that met the criteria would receive some kind of funding. “I think there is an imperative that [funding] cut across literally all regions of the country. From a political point of view, that would be a very positive thing,” she said.

Lakehead University President Frederick Gilbert pointed to a number of projects on his school’s campuses, including $50 million of deferred maintenance. Dr. Gilbert suggested that, combined, all of the projects Lakehead is pursuing could create 1,500 jobs in the short term. But he was matter-of-fact about his school’s odds of receiving funding.

“All we can do is put in our submissions and hope for the best,” he said. “It’s going to be some pretty tough competition out there. We just hope that the value of these projects does in fact fit the priorities of both governments and they will be funded.”

According to the Industry Canada spokesman, “a small team has been established within the Science and Innovation Sector to manage the program.” Departmental officials have also indicated that approvals could be announced as early as April.

Dr. Riley at StFX cautioned that it will not be easy for the federal government to distribute funds directly to universities and colleges across the country so quickly. “It’s quite a challenge for Industry Canada to run this process,” he said. “It’s not going to be easy to make all the decisions in the time frame they have in mind.”

A second application process for the second year of funding under the program will be announced sometime in the future. All projects must be completed by March 31, 2011.

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