Manitoba Elections 2019: Restore Access Funding & Bursaries

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.

Lac Brochet of the Northlands First Nation in north west Manitoba. Access programs represent a relatively low-cost means to enhance the social mobility of aspiring northern and Indigenous students from the province’s most isolated and marginalized communities. Photo courtesy Jesuits of Canada/Flickr.


RECOMMENDATION: The Government of Manitoba reinstate funding and bursaries for Access programs at Manitoba postsecondary education institutions to pre 2018-2019 levels to enable more eligible northern, Indigenous and low-income students to overcome systemic barriers to postsecondary education.


Access programs, established in the early 1970s, are currently offered at the University of Manitoba, University of Winnipeg, Red River College and the University College of the North. These programs assist eligible Indigenous, northern and low-income residents of Manitoba to obtain postsecondary education through providing tailored academic, financial and social supports.

In 2017-18, the Government of Manitoba invested $11.3 million into Access programs and allocated $1.6 million for bursaries for 210 participating students. However, this past year Access funding was reduced to $10.3 million and the bursaries were dropped. These funding cuts resulted in an average loss of $2,000 per student for the year, putting in jeopardy their ability to continue the degree that they have started.

Since the repeal of tuition caps in Manitoba with the passage of Bill 31 in November 2017, students in Manitoba have faced consecutive years of nominal postsecondary tuition increases averaging over 6% 2018-2019 and 3.75% for 2019-2020, on top of inflation. Research from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) has found that an annual tuition raise of around 5% combined with inflation will discourage low-income students from participating in advanced education, and risks fueling social stratification.

Data from the OECD shows that inequality places a drag on economic growth, and is perpetuated by disproportionate educational outcomes.


Seeing reduced participation in postsecondary education by individuals from low-income families would be a harmful development for Manitoba, which already has the highest child poverty rates of any province in Canada. This includes 76% of children living on reserves. More broadly, failing to address this entrenched inequality threatens not just the wellbeing of those individuals and communities, but puts a drag on the economic performance of the province as a whole. Both the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) have provided compelling arguments for how inequality has an outsized negative impact on economic growth overall.

So while the Government of Manitoba has done laudable work to increase the Manitoba Scholarship and Bursary Initiative, earmarking consistent funding for Access programs remains crucial. These programs provide the type of tailored supports necessary for persons from the province’s most marginalized groups to acquire postsecondary education and achieve social mobility. This is particularly true for Indigenous participants, many of whom are the first within their family to pursue postsecondary studies due to poverty, intergenerational trauma and displacement.

These determined, but disadvantaged individuals are able to break cycles of poverty, while also creating additional taxpayers by transforming persons from living on the margins to members of the workforce. 

A natural aspect of the Access programs has also been how they act organically as investment in the social development of communities from which students originate. As an example, since 1985, 716 inner city social work students have completed their degree as a result of Access programs and gone on to work within government and community service agencies. These graduates serve as a reminder of how a relatively low-cost social assistance program can deliver significant return on investment down the line.

A child takes part in activities organized by the Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC) in Winnipeg. Access programs align with the TRC recommendations of reducing Indigenous child poverty rates through improving educational outcomes for Indigenous students. Photo: Seniwati/Flickr

In addition to social work, Access program participants study in a wide range of fields important for the growth of the provincial economy. Red River College offers Access programs in nursing, aircraft maintenance and manufacturing, business administration and civil technology, and is currently looking to make additional programs eligible for Access program participants. At the University of Manitoba, Access programs include Health Career Access Program (HCAP) which prepares Indigenous students for entry to health-related professions such as medicine, dentistry, dental hygiene, pharmacy, rehabilitation sciences, and nursing.

Furthermore, reinstating Access funding and the program bursaries would directly support achieving the goals set out Manitoba’s Indigenous Education Blue Print 2016-2021. This agreement, signed in December 2015 by the Manitoba School Boards Association and nine universities and colleges, commits signatories to working alongside the government in implementing the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

In providing stable funding for Access programs and reinstating the bursaries eliminated in 2018-2019, the Government of Manitoba would show it is taking a proactive role in supporting reconciliation efforts in our province.

By collaborating to increase student mobility to better serve the needs of Indigenous students, while also helping to increase labour market opportunities for Indigenous graduates and northern and low-income individuals alike, all Manitobans will reap the benefits of a more robust and inclusive economy.