This article is part of UMSU’s Manitoba Elections 2019 series, detailing the policy priorities that we have advocated for provincial parties to adopt as part of their platforms to ensure postsecondary education in the province remains affordable and accessible. Learn more here.
To provide a more personal look at the effects that government cuts to Access funding and bursaries have had on the students enrolled in Access programs, UMSU spoke to Christine Rossman and Kelly Driedger, co-chairs of the Advocation for Education Committee, a student advocacy group formed by students in the U of M’s Inner City Social Work program to push for the reinstatement of Access funding.
UMSU: Access programs were developed in the 1970s and 1980s to help disadvantaged students, particularly from Indigenous and northern backgrounds, overcome socioeconomic and geographic hurdles to attain postsecondary education. Can you give us some specific examples of unique personal and academic supports made available to these students through Access programs?
CR & KD: Access programs help the students enrolled in them in a wide variety of ways, focusing on personal development and academic achievement.
Bursaries are tailored to student’s individual needs and are eligible to be spent offsetting certain living costs such as housing and daycare. This is very important, especially for students for whom receiving postsecondary education requires having to uproot themselves and their dependents and move to an urban setting, like Winnipeg. After living their lives in northern and remote locations, the transition can be tough for students, and requires a lot of cultural adjustment. Thankfully, this is something Access programs also help with.
For Access students from an Indigenous background, the programs also incorporate an Indigenous perspective in the programming, connecting Indigenous students to Indigenous elders and knowledge keepers, and the surrounding Indigenous communities.
From an educational standpoint, Access programming often involves smaller classes, with a focus on summer classes, and starts with an extensive pre-university orientation. The programming brings together students from diverse backgrounds, and offers personalized tutoring and learning labs.
The Advocation for Education Committee, which was formed by yourselves and other students from the U of M’s Inner City Social Work program, attended question period at the Legislature in May wherein the cuts to Access programs were discussed. Can you describe for us how this played out?
That’s right – 40 Access students and their supporters attended question period on May 14 and sat in the gallery in a show of protest over the funding cuts.
Premier Brian Pallister was absent from question period, so NDP leader, Wab Kinew, directed his questions toward the Minister of Education and Training, Kelvin Goertzen, as to why the Premier cut assistance for Access students – students who already face so many barriers to getting a good quality education. Goertzen’s response was evasive. He argued that the Pallister government had made $20 million in new funding available through the Manitoba Scholarship and Bursary Initiative (MSBI), which supposedly made up for the lost Access funding. Kinew then explained how Access students were being affected, and asked if the Premier would simply acknowledge the error of his ways and halt cuts to the Access programs. Predictably, Goertzen then diverted into criticizing actions of the previous NDP government over their 17 years in office and making general points about how that has supposedly made things less affordable for Manitobans overall.
Next, NDP member and MLA for Point Douglas, Bernadette Smith, spoke on behalf of Access students. She explained to the minister that the bursaries provide crucial targeted assistance to northern, Indigenous and low-income students in areas where they’re underrepresented within the profession, like social work and education. Access funding, as she mentioned, covers 60% of a student’s financial needs, which is especially important in enabling individuals to acquire postsecondary education, given how the fear of accumulating large amounts of student debt is a very significant deterrent for students already from marginalized backgrounds. Minister Goertzen then reverted back to mentioning the government’s expansion of the MSBI, which included significant contributions from the private sector. In our eyes, he appeared happy to endlessly compare the record of the Pallister government versus the previous NDP government as a means of avoiding hard questions over the cuts to funding for Access students.
Overall, those of us that attended were left wondering why the Pallister government has chosen to go the route of gradually disassembling the Access program model when the data shows that it has been an effective means of targeted support for those who need it, and a successful anti-poverty strategy in Manitoba.
What’s next for the Advocation for Education Committee?
We are currently working with Public Interest Law Centre (PILC) to assess the Manitoba government’s changes to Access funding and programs, including distributing a questionnaire to U of M Access students to help PILC gather more information on students’ experience with Access programs. The aim is to have PILC determine whether there is a viable case to be made in the courts against the province on behalf of the students as to whether the province can just suddenly eliminate the bursaries in the way they have. We’re also looking to reach out to other Access students at other colleges and universities in the province to get their feedback.
“We are not asking for an expensive expansion of the program, just a reinstatement of what was taken away from us, and future Access participants.”
Essentially, what we want to do is explain to lawmakers in the province how Access-type programming is beneficial for society at large. These programs empower marginalized students to succeed in acquiring postsecondary education, which vastly improves their employment prospects and holds the economic benefit of creating additional taxpayers and a more highly skilled workforce within Manitoba. In addition, Access graduates have been shown to help improve their own communities by contributing their skills and knowledge back into their communities upon graduation. Simply put, funding Access Programs is a worthwhile investment. Access programs and the skilled graduates they produce can help break the cycle of poverty for thousands of people from the province’s most disadvantaged communities. People say there is no solution for poverty – well here is one!
Does your Committee have an ideal level of funding and number of bursaries that it would like to see on annual basis?
Based on of eleven years’ worth of annual reports from Manitoba Student Aid, the average amount of Access bursaries for students has consistently been around 220 bursaries per year, at the cost of roughly $1.8 million. We believe this is the right amount, along with the previous level of funding for Access programs of just over $11 million, which goes to help fund all the supports that students receive as part of Access programs. We are not asking for an expensive expansion of the program, just reinstatement of what was taken away from us, and future Access participants.
What kind of challenges are the 210 students who had their bursaries dropped now facing in completing their studies?
Based on conversations with Access students enrolled in the U of M’s Inner City Social Work program, the loss of bursaries has resulted in them having to juggle part-time work – or take on costly loans – to financially support themselves, in addition to attending classes, homework, caregiving and practicums. In numerous cases the loss of a tutor or having to extend a degree completion date due to lost funding has jeopardized the ability for students to finish the degree they’ve started.
Since Access bursaries also covered a portion of students’ cost of living, having that funding taken away now means that many students are falling behind on paying utilities. Many are at the point of being served disconnection notices. Others are having to choose between having money for bus fare to attend classes or put food on the table for their family.
“The students that Access programs target are unique, in that they face a combination of obstacles to postsecondary education that many other students simply don’t have to contend with.”
This is especially true since the government, in addition to slashing funding, also failed to communicate changes to the payment distribution system and students’ funding summaries, which show how much funding the student will receive and when the payout dates are. We’re hearing that administration offices, particularly at University College of the North (UCN) – the area that Access programs were explicitly created to help – aren’t receiving these anymore, which leaves Access students in the dark about when their student aid is arriving. In the meantime, the government has also made changes declaring children over the age of 12 to no longer be dependents eligible for funding coverage, or dropping funding for Métis altogether. These students do not have alternative fallback resources such as family members who can loan students money or co-sign a loan.
Access students are facing a very stressful time right now. Many of us are losing a lot of sleep and you can tell the impact that it has had on students’ sense of security and worry.
When the Access funds were cut in 2018, a government spokesperson said that the change was part of a broader strategy to streamline the student financial aid system, with the funds merged into the provincial bursary system which has in fact seen an expansion under the current government. Can you tell us why it is important to have special funds earmarked for Access programs specifically?
For almost 50 years, Access programs have been vital in empowering northern, Indigenous and low-income students in the province overcome systemic barriers in order to acquire postsecondary education. The special supports these programs offer – such as organizing loan, scholarship and bursary deposits in a way that helps students budget properly – are different from the MSBI scheme in that they effectively help move students from social assistance to being a skilled part of the workforce.
The students that Access programs target are unique, in that they face a combination of obstacles to postsecondary education that many other students simply don’t have to contend with. The programming and bursaries they need to succeed must be different from general scholarships and bursaries that a larger part of the population are eligible for in order to help them navigate their study period.