Province to issue mandate letters to post-secondary institutions

Policy raises questions about the role of universities

On Sept. 18, 2019, Manitoba’s provincial government announced a 100-Day Action Plan. This plan included a proposal to “issue mandate letters to all post-secondary institutions receiving operating funding to outline expected student outcomes and financial accountability requirements.” Mandate letters are commonly used in government to communicate the expectations and mandate of a particular individual or organization.

While more than a hundred days has since passed without the implementation of that policy, the government’s Nov. 19 throne speech said that “in order to reduce waste and duplication in our education system, mandate letters will be sent to all post-secondary
institutions that receive provincial operating funding outlining expected students’ outcomes and financial accountability.”

Furthermore, Premier Brian Pallister said in late November that mandate letters will be sent in the “not too distant” future, as reported by the CBC.

Gord Mackintosh, a sessional political science instructor at the University of Winnipeg (U of W) and former NDP provincial cabinet minister, says “mandate letters to universities are a recently popular way for some governments to tout their platforms, help ensure accountability by those who deliver publicly funded programs and strengthen the power and direction of the central government executive.”

“The expectations set out in public mandate letters might be positive in that they explicitly note shifts in approaches to post-secondary education so citizens can better hold government to account,” he says in an email to The Uniter.

However, Mackintosh notes that “they are not good when, without meaningful collaboration with institutions, they supplant the role of university governing bodies, dare to interfere with academic freedom, seek to cut investment in student access, learning and safety or undermine the liberal and creative arts.”

In 2019, the budget for university operating grants in Manitoba decreased by $6 million, roughly 0.9 per cent. Post-secondary education now falls under the ministerial portfolio of the Economic Development and Training department. Mackintosh says “this signals a government vision for our universities as workforce colleges.”

“I’m sure they will be connecting (the mandate letters) very tightly to the sector that are requiring employees, which is not the role of the university,” Dr. Kathy Levine, associate professor in the Faculty of Social Work at the University of Manitoba, says.

Mackintosh says “better meeting student job expectations and investments aligned with workforce shortages is laudable, but not at the expense of undermining broad access to higher learning and creating strong citizens with the analytical thinking required in a healthy democracy to challenge government when, for example, they weaken the capacity of its intellectual and creative base.”

“If the letters undermine the potential of Manitoba’s knowledge-based and creative economy, then the economic objectives of the government will go unmet, and the move will backfire,” he says.

“The premier is committed to ‘alignment between learning and the jobs that will drive the economy,’’’ which Mackintosh says “could be code for a commitment in favour of only job prep at the expense of diminished support for liberal arts education that fosters critical and creative thinking.”

In an emailed statement, U of W president and vice-chancellor Dr. Annette Trimbee says the university is “working productively with the province and leading employers.”

“We all have a shared interest in the success of our graduates,” she says, adding that the university is “aligned with the goal of preparing graduates for careers over the longterm by emphasizing the acquisition of skills and
knowledge that will be relevant in a changing economy.”

According to a 2019 report by Indeed Hiring Lab, “settling into the labour force right out of university might be tougher than in the past, but conditions look better for those who’ve been out of school longer.” Studies by Statistics Canada have shown that, indeed, employment rates increase with higher levels of educational attainment.

The U of W Career Services department offers resources to help students with career planning. On Tuesday, Jan. 14, the U of W will hold its annual Career Fair in the Duckworth Gymnasium from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Students should “attend this event to find out about potential careers, part-time jobs, volunteer and internship positions, as well as college and university programs,” according to the event’s website.

Exhibitors at the fair include post-secondary institutions (such as the University of Toronto and Lakehead University), government employers (like the Canada Revenue Agency and the Winnipeg Police Service) and private-sector employers (including Assiniboine Credit Union and PepsiCo Canada). Attendees will also have the opportunity to learn about volunteer positions with organizations like the Health Sciences Centre and Volunteer Manitoba.

“For the non-professional faculties and departments, the role of universities is to expose students to as wide a variety of career possibilities as possible within that particular discipline,” Levine says. Most U of W programs are considered non-professional.

When asked about the biggest challenge that university students and recent graduates face, she talks about people “getting locked into something that will limit other opportunities.”

A recent approximation by Universities Canada concluded that almost 1.8 million “new jobs were created for university graduates, twice as much as those created for graduates of all other types of postsecondary education combined” between March 2009 and March 2019.

Levine says it is important for universities to help “students make the connections between really generalizable skills and how they can apply those in the career path of choice.”

For more information on the upcoming Career Fair, visit uwinnipeg.ca/career-services/career-fair/index.html.

Published in Volume 74, Number 13 of The Uniter (January 9, 2020)

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