Overreaching and undermining

Bill 33 threatens university autonomy, accessibility

Illustration by Gabrielle Funk

Last year, student and faculty unions joined forces to fight against the Manitoba government’s overreach on post-secondary institutions through Bill 33.

Now, it seems the provincial government is attempting to undermine the independence of post-secondary education again.

The Department of Advanced Education, Skills and Immigration recently began a series of consultations on post-secondary tuition fees. The proposed changes could lead to differential tuition fees across university departments as early as 2023-24.

Already, dissenting faculty voices have been excluded from these consultations, including the Manitoba Organization of Faculty Associations.

Bill 33, or the Advanced Education Administration Act, passed into law in late 2021 despite immense opposition from student groups and faculty associations. The legislation gives the Minister of Advanced Education, Skills and Immigration the power to issue guidelines for tuition, limit compulsory fees and claw back public funding.

Performance-based funding (PBF), a model the Manitoba government follows, refers to the allocation of post-secondary funding based on metrics such as completion rates and graduate earnings.

In other jurisdictions, PBF has resulted in drastic cuts to the public funding of post-secondary institutions. It almost always results in disproportionate funding cuts to the arts and humanities. Students pay more, and governments dictate what programs are worthy of funding.

During my tenure as a city reporter at The Uniter, I became privy to the many ways that Bill 33 would negatively impact students if passed into law. At the time, a clause in the legislation allowing students to opt out of student-union fees threatened a host of programs students rely on, including food banks, health plans and childcare services.

Manitoba isn’t the only province facing these obstacles. Last week, the University of Alberta announced steep tuition hikes – in some cases double – as a result of the Kenney government’s defunding of post-secondary education. With the talk of differential tuition, Manitoba could easily fall into the same trap.

The value of a university degree cannot be measured in arbitrary economic terms. It cannot be measured in six-figure salaries or its economic benefit to the private sector. PBF doesn’t account for the compassion of faculty members, nor the work of undergraduate researchers preserving Indigenous languages, finding solutions to climate change and making Manitoba a more equitable place.

A good university education equips students to be socially conscious human beings. It also encourages students to think critically and to question structures of power – something the Stefanson government clearly does not want students to do.

The Manitoba government cannot claim to support diversity, equity and inclusion while at the same time creating legislation that would make post-secondary increasingly inaccessible for marginalized students.

Students already face significant barriers in obtaining post-secondary education. With rising housing costs, inflation and now tuition, these changes would lead to fewer students graduating on time, if at all.

Manitoba universities have produced topnotch scholars, lawyers, politicians, scientists and community leaders. They did so without the overreach of the government.

Ultimately, I ask Jon Reyes, the Minister of Advanced Education, Skills and Immigration: who do these proposed changes benefit? Who do they serve?

The answer certainly isn’t students.

Cierra Bettens is The Uniter’s arts and culture editor. She is currently completing her BAH in political science at the University of Winnipeg.

Published in Volume 76, Number 21 of The Uniter (March 17, 2022)

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