Atlantic Canada’s Universities: Collaboration that works for the region
When Atlantic Canada’s universities collaborate, even small institutions deliver Ivy League-style services to their students. This was the first lesson the Association of Atlantic Universities (AAU) learned as it reviewed submissions to this project from 11 organizations whose collaborative efforts are outlined in this report.
Science Atlantic, for instance, brings students from smaller institutions together at events which provide access to larger faculties, more fellow scholars, and additional resources. It has been doing this for 60 years now, through its annual subject-specific student conferences. At these events, a physics student from a small liberal arts college is suddenly immersed in conversation and debate with 100 of their academic soul mates from post-secondary education (PSE) institutions across the region. The encounter teaches them all something about physics, and just as importantly something about charting a career path as a physicist.
Other examples of smaller universities delivering Ivy League benefits: several organizations profiled in this report also collaborate to make their combined information resources (digital, virtual, and licenced periodical) available to students across the region, and to the public in some cases. A library at a small university may occupy precious little space, but it also provides a digital portal to something resembling the great college libraries at Oxford or Harvard. The Council of Atlantic Academic Libraries (CAAL), meanwhile, sometimes recruits students to play a role in the development of free digital textbooks. These texts have already saved students more than $300,000 and are often adopted by faculties in other institutions in the region.
Other organizations stepped up for students at times of crisis. When the COVID-19 pandemic gripped the world, the member institutions of the Atlantic Association of College & University Student Services (AACUSS) quickly convened meetings to develop a protocol for safely escorting international students from airports to quarantine housing to permanent accommodations. EduNova plays an important role not only in attracting those same international students to Atlantic Canada in the first place, but also in helping them find a path to citizenship if they wish to stay here. Some of those newcomers in turn play a vital role as researchers in the region, taking advantage of the collaborative efforts which bring university scholars together with leaders in the corporate and government sectors.
And EduNova is only one of the profiled organizations which have a positive impact in Atlantic Canada. Since 2003, ACENET has been supporting industry-government-university collaboration by providing access to regional and national supercomputers to help researchers and others complete their work. As a result of the ability to deploy big data, PSE-linked researchers now advise mining companies on meeting net-zero CO2 emission targets in their exploration projects.
Contributions to the region’s progress and prosperity don’t end there. Genome Atlantic helps Christmas tree farms grow tall, straight conifers for the Yuletide market. The Change Lab Action Research Initiative (CLARI) works directly with communities which identify their own local needs. One promising project matches the skills and experience of newcomers to the region with the needs of the agricultural sector as farmers age and new investment is required to maintain a level of food security in Atlantic Canada.
Springboard Atlantic also connects researchers and the corporate sector by forging ties between its member institutions (15 universities and four community colleges) and various economic sectors. Currently, the organization is teaming up with industry and academic professionals to investigate the potential of plant-based and alternative proteins in the region, a fast-growing food sector.
Many of the 11 organizations profiled in this narrative deliver financial benefits to their members and ultimately to students. Interuniversity Services Inc. (ISI) stands in a class of its own when it comes to managing procurement services. Founded in the early 1980s, ISI was a pioneer in the field of university procurement in Canada, and has saved its members millions of dollars through bulk purchases of goods and services. Like all the organizations profiled in this report, ISI is still on the leading edge today, negotiating on behalf of the region’s higher education sector for procuring everything from stationary products to employee benefits.
Collaborating on Behalf of Students
In this section of the report, we focus on organizations which directly provide services to students.
For this prof, Science Atlantic just adds up
In the 1980s, when Robert van den Hoogen was an undergrad at Saint Mary’s University, one of his professors sent him off to a Science Atlantic (then known as the Atlantic Provinces Inter-University Committee on the Sciences) student math conference at Mount Saint Vincent University.
It was a eureka moment. Dr. van den Hoogen realized there were other people like him – math lovers – studying in the universities of Atlantic Canada. There he was, among his peers, in an environment that suggested a career in mathematics was possible.
Today, Dr. van den Hoogen teaches mathematics at St. Francis Xavier University (StFX). In his research, he probes the reasons the universe is expanding at a rate that Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity did not anticipate. (If van den Hoogen comes up with a plausible hypothesis about why gravity doesn’t work as forecast in the heavens, the cosmos will be his oyster.)
Shortly after beginning his career at StFX, Dr. van den Hoogen co-organized an Undergraduate Math and Computer Science conference (the same conference he attended as a student) as the university’s Science Atlantic math representative. He is still involved with Science Atlantic, recently serving as the organization’s Chair of the Board, Chair of Strategic Planning, and Chair of the Governance Committee.
Science Atlantic has been helping students, faculty, and others enrich their opportunities and experiences in science education and research since 1962 by connecting faculties across its network of 18 post-secondary institutions. It plays a role in co-ordinating academic conferences, lecture tours and faculty workshops. It has conducted one-on-one interviews with professors and teachers across Atlantic Canada to gain an understanding of what inspires and challenges them.
All that work is important, but van den Hoogen says the “jewel in the crown” at Science Atlantic is the sort of subject-specific student conference he attended almost four decades ago. For example, it may be easy to bring 100 physics students together at the University of Toronto, he said, but the smaller universities in Atlantic Canada create communities of student physicists through Science Atlantic’s annual conferences.
Dr. van den Hoogen underlines the importance of these conferences by telling a story about a student he once took to a conference in Newfoundland and Labrador. The student had never been on an airplane and rarely left Nova Scotia soil. Today, his former student is an internationally recognized scientist working overseas. Science Atlantic sent the young scholar out on a journey that led all the way to science superstardom.
CAAL – Lowering the cost of learning, but not the value
Guess what – textbooks no longer have to be heavy, expensive, and difficult to edit. Thanks to the support of the Council of Atlantic Academic Libraries (CAAL), professor can create write digital textbooks that are free to students – and sometimes developed in collaboration with them.
Support for free and open digital textbooks (OERs) is just one of many CAAL programs. This regional network of Atlantic Canada’s public university and college libraries has a broad mandate to leverage community and collaboration to advance scholarship, innovation, diversity, and accessibility in teaching, learning, research, and student experiences.
Today, OERs are already saving students hundreds of thousands of dollars, says Cynthia Holt, CAAL’s Executive Director. By March of 2023, digital textbooks had saved students in the region $335,000 (and counting), money they can use on other things, such as rent and food. One OER text, Introduction to Marketing, has by itself saved students in Atlantic Canada $68,210. That number will grow each semester as additional students use the text.
At St. Francis Xavier University, Dr. Erin Mazerolle and her colleagues used a CAAL grant to update an open textbook, Introduction to Psychology and Neuroscience. And they did so as a result of a virtual hackathon at which students reviewed the textbook and suggested improvements. Dr. Mazerolle says the result was the development of a text that was more inclusive, more accessible, and more relevant to students as an open educational resource.
CAAL also collaborates with its members in the collective licensing of electronic journals, ebooks, streaming media, and other materials. By joining together to license these resources, member universities and colleges realize significant savings. Other CAAL resources, such as the Cochrane Library (a health information database), are freely available to all residents of the Atlantic region. Clearly, the value of CAAL’s licensing service goes beyond just faculty, staff, and students.
EduNova’s Worldly Ways
EduNova Co-operative Ltd. takes Nova Scotia to the world, and brings the world to Nova Scotia.
EduNova has been doing this since 2004, when it was founded to recruit international students to the province through trade missions and recruitment trips abroad.
The non-profit association of education and training also brings students to Nova Scotia through familiarization tours for agents, counsellors and students.
At the same time, EduNova understands that it must continuously adapt to attract new students to the province. During the COVID-19 pandemic, it worked closely with its members to adopt new technologies and deliver international student recruitment events online.
As a result, Nova Scotia’s welcome messages now travel farther afield than ever. Students who may not have had the opportunity to travel to in-person recruitment events in the past can now learn about opportunities to study, work, and live in Nova Scotia at the click of a button.
The association understands its success is based in the strength of the educational institutions it serves. For 200 years, Nova Scotia has been a centre of educational excellence, and it’s no accident that the province is now recognized as the learning capital of Canada, with more academic institutions per capita than any other region of the country.
International students who travel here know they can study in French or in English, obtaining affordable education that is globally recognized.
Many also choose to stay in the province, bringing with them the youthful energy, educability and talents Nova Scotia needs.
Since 2016, EduNova Study and Stay™ program has attracted 400 international students to the province, 86 per cent of whom have stayed here to build their lives and careers.
Many alumni from the free 10-month program – designed for international students completing their post-secondary studies in the province – help attract new Study and Stay scholars and mentor them while they’re here.
Success builds upon success. This has been the EduNova way since the organization was founded 19 years ago as an association of 16 PSE institutions. Today, membership is comprised of 10 universities, the 13-campus Nova Scotia Community College (NSCC), the public K-12 schools through the Nova Scotia International Student Program (NSISP), independent schools and private language schools.
CATNS – a navigator for the PSE journey
Planning for university and college can be an overwhelming experience, but the 11 universities and colleges that make up the Council on Admission and Transfer for Nova Scotia (CATNS) collaborate to make the process easier.
Visitors to MyNSFuture.ca, for instance, can chart their path through the PSE sector . They will discover that students and families should start planning their post-secondary future as early as Grade 10. They can also review the education options available in Nova Scotia; connect to each university or college; and find information on financial assistance.
Students applying to university or college can also benefit from an efficient admissions process. Applicants no longer have to mail paper copies of transcripts. MyTranscripts enables them to send their records through a secure electronic network that allows universities and colleges to make admission decisions quickly and fairly.
CATNS also manages programs to make life easier for post-secondary students.
MyTransferCredits can help students make the most of learning they have already completed. If they decide their best opportunities for academic success lie at a different university or college, they can use this tool to investigate whether they can transfer credits for a single course, multiple years of previous work, or an entire college program. In some cases, students who have completed a diploma at the college level can then complete a degree in two years at a university.
MySpring&SummerCourses can help a student complete a degree or obtain extra credits through spring and summer courses offered at any of Nova Scotia’s universities or colleges. A student heading home to Halifax for the summer, for example, could select an eligible course at Saint Mary’s University that the student can transfer back to the next semester at Acadia.
All of CATNS’ tools deliver on its mandate to develop and manage collaborative systems that support student enrolment, student mobility and data portability. Its mission is to get better and better at delivering on this mandate, as new opportunities to help students arise.
Collaborating for Atlantic Canada
In this section of the report, we focus on organizations which collaborate with government and industry, for the greater good of the region.
CLARI – food for thought, and on our tables
How do you build stronger communities in Nova Scotia? ‘One project at a time’ is the answer to the question, as the work of the Change Lab Action Research Initiative (CLARI) shows. CLARI fosters community-based action research: Community organizations generate project ideas, and CLARI teams them up with university professors and students who conduct research that matters in the real world.
Chris Atwood, the executive of CBDC Blue Water, brought the issue of food security – and the future of Nova Scotia’s agriculture sector – to CLARI’s attention in 2019. He teamed up with Claudia De Fuentes, an Associate Professor at the Sobey School of Business at Saint Mary’s University.
A range of challenges faced the agricultural sector when the research duo started their project. Land was going out of production. Farmers were getting older. Children often left farms instead of taking over family operations. Finally, immigrants with relevant skills and experience were not entering the agricultural sector.
After holding a series of meetings with industry groups, farmers and government officials, Atwood and De Fuentes were left with a major overarching question. Could immigrants help fill the gaps in the agrifood and agricultural industries? In phase two of their research, they will consult more widely with immigrant communities and organizations to better understand the impediments facing newcomers interested in agriculture.
For Atwood and de Fuentes, this work is crucial at a time of growing food insecurity, the root causes of which are not only inflation and homelessness, but also local production and manufacturing of food products.
Phillip Joy, a professor at Mount Saint Vincent University and Asif Khan, a researcher at Feed Nova Scotia, are also concerned about how we can put food on our tables at a challenging time. Specifically, they are researching the issue of food insecurity in the 2SLGBTQIA+ community. Joy and Kahn have just launched a CLARI project to gain “a more nuanced understanding” of the barriers to food security in this community by talking with the people directly effected.
As a result of that work, Khan and Joy hope to gain insights that can lead to the development of policies to address food insecurity in the 2SLGBTQIA+ community, and to better advocate on its behalf.
ACENET – The Little Research Engine that Grew, and Grew, and …
Atlantic Canada’s universities boast some of the best researchers in the world, in areas ranging from health care to marine sciences to artificial intelligence (AI).
But how do you keep the smartest and the brightest working at Atlantic Canada’s universities, none of which control the massive computing capacity required to conduct world-class research today?
ACENET is the answer to the question.
The organization started in 2003 as part of a collaborative project of five universities in the region.
Today, the organization boasts 15 members from the PSE sector in the region, and serves the research needs of more than 1,300 users involved in 400 academic and industry projects.
ACENET users have access to regional supercomputers as well as large national capacity through their partnership with the Digital Research Alliance of Canada. This gives StFX University researchers enough computing power to figure out how to make frozen-at-sea seafood taste like it was plucked fresh from the sea.
At l’Université de Moncton, a research team from the Perception, Robotics and Intelligent Machines (PRIME) group is tapping into supercomputers to teach AI to spot signs of COVID-19 on X-ray images of lungs.
At Memorial University, another research team is using supercomputers to enable mining exploration projects to meet net-zero CO2 emission targets.
Other academic and industry researchers are deploying ACENET’s computer horsepower to map environmental systems, develop green energy alternatives and design new pharmaceuticals to combat infectious diseases.
Over time, the ACENET research engine has done more and more to enable data-intensive research throughout Atlantic Canada.
Springboard – a collaborator in the innovation economy
For almost 20 years, Springboard Atlantic has been driving university and community college research partnerships and commercialization.
This is an important task in Canada, which is a laggard among OECD nations in Research and Development (R&D) spending and commercialization. About two decades ago, the region’s universities and colleges started a conversation with Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA) about ways to address this challenge. A consensus was reached – in a small region like Atlantic Canada, the successful commercialization of research depends on sharing expertise and knowledge and collaborating on significant opportunities.
Springboard Atlantic was created to do just that. It addresses the innovation challenge by flowing research from its member institutions (15 universities and four community colleges). Today, experts in each of the region’s post-secondary institutions help stakeholders interested in R&D to engage with the right academic research partners, source funding, and protect their intellectual property.
Today, Springboard is taking a lead role in one major project to investigate the potential for manufacturing plant-based and alternative proteins in the region. This is one of the fastest growing food sectors in the world, and the current research project will determine the potential for development of the sector in Atlantic Canada.
Plant Protein Atlantic: Exploring the Value of Plant Proteins in the Atlantic Region is bringing together a number of collaborators, including Dalhousie University, the University of Prince Edward Island, Protein Industries Canada (PIC), and the Eastern Canada Oilseed Development Alliance (ECODA). Springboard’s role, initially, was to provide seed funding for a foundational 2021 forum to the explore the value of plant proteins in the region. The Springboard representatives at Dalhousie’s Agricultural Campus also helped to organize the forum.
More broadly, Springboard’s 30 plus institutional representatives provide valuable expertise to businesses and organizations, and to post-secondary faculty and researchers as they work to solve real-world challenges.
And they’re working hard at the task of commercializing innovative research.
Over the past three years (and despite the pandemic), Springboard’s member institutions engaged with more that 8,700 industry and community partners, completed 2,000 technology transfer agreements with industry and community partners, and assisted in the launch of 386 new startups and spinoffs.
Since 2005, the Springboard model has proven its value, as the organization has helped facilitate the growth of a broad range of economic sectors in the region, including agriculture/agri-food, health/med-tech, clean-tech, aerospace and defense, and advanced manufacturing.
Where Genome Phenoms are Born
The idea sounds simple, but the science is complex: Unlock the genetic code of living things to (amongst other things) protect endangered North Atlantic Right Whales; grow taller, straighter trees; and help heart patients live longer, healthier lives. That’s just three areas of collaboration at Genome Atlantic, which works with industry partners and university researchers across Atlantic Canada.
Today, Genome Atlantic is joining forces with scientists on both sides of the Canada-US border to protect the North Atlantic Right Whale. The endangered species is suffering due to low birth rates, vessel strikes and entanglements with fishing gear. By working with government agencies, and scientists at Saint Mary’s University and the New England Aquarium, Genome Atlantic hopes to shed light on the low reproductive rate of the large marine mammal. Genetic research may well unlock the key to this puzzle. Researchers hope doing so will result in public policy which better protects this endangered species.
In Nova Scotia, a genetic breakthrough has resulted in a better way to grow trees. Researchers at Dalhousie University developed a SMART seedling from which perfect Christmas trees – tall, straight and proud – grow 80-90% of the time. Not a bad track record, says Jim DeLong, a veteran tree grower who used to send only 10 per cent of his harvest into the commercial market at Christmas.
Across the Cabot Strait, at Memorial University in St. John’s, researchers working on a Genome Atlantic project discovered the gene responsible for ARVC (Arrhythmogenic Right Cardiomyopathy), a deadly heart disease dubbed “The Newfoundland Curse” because of its prevalence in the province. The team’s discovery led to the development of a simple blood test for ARVC. Hundreds of high-risk patients were screened as a result; many of them were implanted with defibrillators and now live longer, healthier lives as a result.
Genome Atlantic also collaborates with research and industry partners in several other sectors of the Atlantic Canadian economy, ranging from aquaculture to energy to mining. In fulfilling its mission, this not-for-profit organization helps put this region on the map in the fast-growing field of applied genome-based R&D.
Collaborating inside the PSE sector
In this section of the report, we profile organizations which have developed collaborative cross-institutional programs with deliver benefits to all PSE institutions and their students.
ISI, the Perpetual Pioneer
Interuniversity Services Inc. (ISI) was founded in 1984 on a single innovative idea – PSE institutions in Atlantic Canada could save millions of dollars by taking a collaborative approach to procurement.
This made ISI a pioneer in university procurement in Canada. Prior to 1984, most PSE institutions in Canada had purchased their own goods and services.
Today, ISI continues to deploy the collective buying power of its member institutions to lower the costs of everything from fuel oil to stationary products. In addition, its Employee Benefits portfolio leverages the sector’s 20,000 employees to reduce premium costs for them and their employers.
The ISI team – comprised of professionals with expertise in public procurement, contract management and administrative services – continues to explore the efficiency, collaboration, and innovation frontiers.
In the area of Information Technology, for instance, ISI’s collaborative approach mitigates the cybersecurity risk to participating members, while reducing the costs of both contracting internet capacity and key software tools.
In doing so, ISI reaches new milestones. In 2022, for instance, the organization’s 19 member institutions collaborated on more than $100 million in contracted spending.
Today, ISI continues to focus on achieving its primary goal – finding new ways to save money for its member institutions.
At ISI, it is always about the next step, about doing its job more efficiently and effectively. There are always new milestones to reach.
AACUSS – Helping Students, and Each Other
For international students, the transition to life in Atlantic Canada had never been more challenging. As COVID-19 gripped the country and the world,
students arriving in the region had to find a way to travel from airports, isolate for 14 days under federal restrictions, and find places to live.
In the worst of times, The Atlantic Association of College & University Student Services (AACUSS) put its best foot forward. By collaborating across institutions, AACUSS members were able to determine a best-practice protocol for everything from airport pickups to settling new students in the region once they had been through a fortnight in isolation.
AACUSS also had to develop these best practices on the fly during an unprecedented pandemic. By collaborating continuously with each other, association members were able to refine the welcoming protocol for international students by sharing what worked and what didn’t at their own institutions.
During the pandemic, with the sands shifting so frequently, the various divisions of AACUSS rallied to bring together professionals to talk about what was happening, the challenges faced, the solutions found, and the lessons learned.
AACUSS Divisions also found ways to support each other at a time when the delivery of student services was shifting to the virtual world from the real one. In the end COVID-19 actually brought people closer together inside the association. As a result, members were empowered to deepen their commitments to professional development and to establishing the best standards for the delivery of Student Services.
By helping each other, AACUSS members were also able to help students more effectively and efficiently.
Novanet – knowledge, learning and community
Novanet, a consortium of academic libraries in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, was established in 1988, but its history can be traced back to 1982. That year, the presidents and chief librarians from five Halifax universities decided that sharing resources was better than competing for them.
Better for students, who could borrow books and access other resource materials from five libraries instead of one.
Better for member universities, which could share and refine a single automated library cataloguing system instead of building five separate ones.
And better for communities. Today, anyone with a public library card in Nova Scotia or New Brunswick can access books and other materials through Novanet’s Borrow Anywhere, Return Anywhere program.
At its core, Novanet has always been about collaborating to share knowledge and information. This is the core value upon which Novanet has grown its membership.
Today, Novanet includes twelve Nova Scotia and New Brunswick postsecondary institutions serving more than 50,000 full- and part-time students.
The shared automatic cataloguing system on which Novanet was founded in 1988 has since evolved into a shared Library Services Platform (LSP). LSP software handles everything from purchasing electronic and print material, to circulating books and other resources, to managing user access to electronic material.
LSPs are a complicated and costly purchase. Universities save money and staffing resources by sharing and managing a single LSP rather than each purchasing their own. For many smaller institutions access to a modern, robust LSP would not be possible without Novanet.
In short, Novanet not only succeeds on a collaborative model. It also does so by making more knowledge available to more people while saving its member institutions money.