Manitoba Elections 2019: Post-Secondary Operating Grants


September 4, 2019 - 8 minutes read

This article is part of UMSU’s Manitoba Elections 2019 series, detailing the policy priorities that we have advocated for provincial parties to adopt in their platforms to ensure post-secondary education in the province remains affordable and accessible. Learn more here.

Lower operating grants for post-secondary education institutions results in tuition spikes and reduces the quality of learning environments for students — including making it harder for the U of M to address a deferred maintenance program that currently runs into the hundreds of millions of dollars. Photo: UMSU

 

RECOMMENDATION: That the Government of Manitoba reinstate funding for the province’s post-secondary institution operating grants to pre 2017-2018 levels.

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For three successive years, Manitoba’s post-secondary education (PSE) institutions have seen a decrease in real dollars in operating grant funding from the provincial government. In addition, Research Manitoba, the body that oversees provincial research grants and awards, saw its previous budget of around $15 million slashed by a fifth in 2018.

These decisions have exacerbated the decades-long trend of decreased government funding for public PSE institutions in Canada. In 1985, government funding comprised 81% of the operating revenue of Canadian universities, but by 2015 made up only half. In Manitoba, as a result of the 2019/20 cut to operating grants, Manitoba universities have fallen below the 50% public funding threshold for the first time. This has left universities to fill the funding gap by raising tuition – particularly amongst international students – and appealing to private donors and industry benefactors. Similar trends can be found in funding for public colleges and technical schools.

Post-secondary institutions provide students and researchers with the tools and environments necessary to drive innovation in a range of areas vital to the prosperity of the provincial economy, and which generate ties to other parts of the world.

In response to operating grant cuts announced in 2018, University of Manitoba president and vice-chancellor, David Barnard, asserted how it is of “critical importance that students in Manitoba have access to a post-secondary education at modern, well-equipped, nationally and internationally competitive institutions”.

For the province as a whole, reducing the operating grants of PSE institutions undermines the economic, educational, social and cultural benefits that these schools and their graduates bring to society long-term. The University of Manitoba alone generates $1.8 billion in economic activity for the province every year, while bringing in 180,000 visitors annually and supporting 20,000 jobs in Manitoba.

PSE institutions are also unique spaces wherein valuable research and innovation can occur and students are able to be transformed into Manitoba’s next generation of highly skilled workers through collaborating on partnered projects. A prime example of this is the newly-opened Smartpark Innovation Hub on the U of M’s Fort Garry Campus – a 75,000 square foot building that offers tenant companies meetings rooms, lab spaces, technology incubators, and professional expertise and guidance in commercializing cutting edge ideas.

If students are receiving less enriching education, and it’s taking them longer to get it, then our economy and society are deprived of their talents. 

This is especially true given how the needs of business, industry and public service are changing faster than ever before. The Manitoba government’s own labour market forecasts anticipate roughly 12,000 job openings annually through 2024 that require post-secondary education.

Of particular note is the nationwide trend for post-secondary schools to rely on the financial windfall presented by tuition fees paid by international students. In the past ten years, international student fees in Canada have been raised at twice the rate of domestic students – from comprising 19% of all fees collected at Canadian universities (under $1 billion total) and 4% of total revenue in 2006; to 35% of all fees collected at Canadian universities ($2.75 billion total) and 9.3% of total revenue.

Making postsecondary institutions ever-more reliant on international student tuition to fill funding gaps carries a risk of reducing the scope of programs being offered, prompting less of a focus on health, social sciences and humanities. Photo: UMSU

 

While the strategy of schools choosing to offset losses in government funding by leveraging higher tuition revenue from international students may be a shrewd – yet somewhat imposed – business decision in the short to medium term, it is questionable for Manitoba in the long-term.

First, the strategy will inevitably reach a point of diminished returns, as the revenue gains made by higher tuition rates will be offset by more foreign students choosing to study elsewhere in Canada. The likelihood of this happening is increased by the Government of Manitoba’s decision to strip international students of their health care coverage. Second, it also ultimately risks long term consequences for the integrity of post-secondary education curriculums by limiting the range of offerings.

In the words of Alex Usher, the President of Higher Education Strategy Associates, and co-author of the Government of Manitoba’s 2017 Manitoba College Review:

“There is nothing intrinsically wrong in turning to international students to fill the gap left by flagging government support; certainly, Canada would not be the first country to go down that road. Making the system more reliant on foreign dollars changes the kind of system we will have.  It will be more oriented to the business, engineering and science programs international students want, and less oriented to health, social sciences and the humanities programs that they tend to avoid.  It will be more financially volatile and vulnerable to external political shocks, as [last] summer’s sudden departure of Saudi students from Canadian institutions demonstrates.” – Alex Usher

By providing sustained levels of pre 2018-2019 operating grants, the government will ensure that Manitoba’s PSE institutions have the ability to attract and develop the province’s next generation of highly-skilled professionals, and drive the research and innovation needed compete within rapidly changing global economy – while also serving the public interest. Surely this is something worth investing in.