Post-secondary education in the COVID-19 era: Increase access for women and marginalized communities

This article is part one of a three-part series detailing recommendations from UMSU to the Government of Manitoba for how to improve access and affordability of post-secondary education in light of the unique challenges posed by COVID-19. These recommendations were presented by UMSU executives to the Minister of Finance and Minister of Economic Development and Training in a meeting on June 18.


The economic and social consequences of COVID-19 means that we require new approaches to making post-secondary education in Manitoba more accessible and affordable – particularly for women and marginalized communities. Photo: Alan Levine/Flickr

RECOMMENDATION: Take measures to help women and individuals from marginalized communities regain access to higher education by ensuring affordable child care and increasing funding allotted to the ACCESS program for 2020/2021, including the reinstatement of bursary allowances for participants.

Specific actions:

  1. Increase the funding received by recipients of the Manitoba Child Care Subsidy;
  2. Add student status to the list of criteria for eligibility for the subsidy;
  3. Provide financial incentives/supports to businesses to hire more child care workers to expand access to child care;
  4. Boost the funding allotted to the ACCESS program for 2020/2021 by $5 million and reinstate bursary allowances for participants.


The pandemic has created deep economic uncertainty for tens of thousands of Manitobans, but women and marginalized communities have been affected the most. Particularly women that have had to take on extra child care duties at home and those in low-paid, precarious jobs in the retail and service sectors that have seen their incomes dry up due to lockdown measures and a halt in consumer activity.

The financial fallout of the pandemic for women is so prominent that many economists are dubbing the coronavirus-induced recession the ‘she-cession’.

Three quarters of Manitoba’s child care providers closed in March after the province first started grappling with the novel coronavirus. Of those providers, over 70% were reportedly planning to re-open in May or June according to the Manitoba Child Care Association.

However, while accessibility to child care is set to improve, the affordability of child care will remain an urgent issue. Many women and families may find child care even more unaffordable now after having their incomes diminished. This will be especially true for student parents who are inherently less active in the labour market due to dedicating time to their studies.

Left unaddressed, this presents a dangerous possibility: more female parents missing out on chances to upskill themselves because family units can no longer afford both tuition and child care at the same time.

Many observers also point to another potential trend: current work-from-home arrangements may shift from temporary to semi-permanent as companies discover overhead cost savings from the reduced necessity of physical office space.

The combination of less outlets for child care and a change in the nature of work that embraces remote engagement will mean that mothers will bear more unpaid child care duties at the expense of being able to work outside the home or attend post-secondary training to further their careers. Women being prevented from returning to their pre-pandemic levels of income and autonomy not only affects them individually, but is also a risk for the province overall.


To prevent women from being left behind in the post-pandemic economic recovery, they must have access to not only work but also higher education and training. Photo: Sangudo/Flickr

Women in Manitoba were already earning on average 18 per cent less than men. Meanwhile, a report from the McKinsey Global Institute focused on women’s equality in Canada showed that optimizing female participation in Manitoba’s economy could increase provincial GDP by $4.7 billion by 2026.

Women being unable to access post-secondary education and improve their standing in the labour market will have a compound effect by reducing their purchasing power, while also aggravating gender income gaps and preventing Manitoba’s economy from achieving its full potential.

Source: Status of Women in Manitoba report, 2018

The Government of Manitoba can mitigate this by increasing amounts provided to parents through the Child Care Subsidy Program; adding student status as a criterion for eligibility for the subsidy to ensure women aspiring to go back to school will have access to child care to do so; and providing financial incentives for businesses to hire more child care workers to increase capacity.

This investment would also dovetail with the Minister of Economic Development and Training’s mandate for enhancing women’s entrepreneurship and leadership opportunities.

Supporting access to post-secondary education for marginalized populations

The emergence of COVID-19 has also offered a harsh lesson in how health outcomes are intimately tied to income and social inequalities. Members of marginalized communities tend to work in jobs without paid sick leave; live in subpar and crowded housing – increasing risk of infection – with longer commutes to school, work and clinics; and struggle to make ends meet. Given the added financial pressure imposed by lockdowns, opportunities for students from these communities to earn a degree – already quite low – may now be totally out of reach.

Seeing reduced participation in post-secondary education by individuals from low-income families as a result of income erosion due to COVID-19 would be a harmful development for the province’s attempts to reduce inequality and break cycles of child poverty – of which Manitoba has among the highest rates in Canada.

Failing to address 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.

One solution can be found in ACCESS programs, which represent an established and relatively low-cost means to empower individuals living on the margins to achieve social mobility and become taxpayers and skilled members of the workforce. This is particularly true for Indigenous participants, many of whom are the first within their family to pursue post-secondary studies due to poverty, intergenerational trauma and displacement.

The Government of Manitoba should seize the current opportunity to direct more funding toward expanding ACCESS programs and reinstating participant bursaries as part of the Minister of Economic Development and Training’s mandate to develop a new ACCESS framework.

Even prior to the disruption caused by COVID-19, the need for ACCESS programs was stark. Some 80% of ACCESS participants are Indigenous students, with past participants noting how the holistic support provided by the programs are fundamental to helping them transition from high school to post-secondary education. Especially when doing so comes with the culture shock of leaving small communities or reserves to study in a large urban centre.

Another benefit of the ACCESS programs is how they act as an organic investment in the social development of communities from which students originate.


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.

Since 1985, 716 inner city students have graduated as social workers through ACCESS programs and gone on to work in provincial, municipal and community health and social services.

As numerous reports have emerged on how issues of domestic violence, addiction and mental health have been exacerbated under lockdowns, a new generation of community health and social workers will be needed to help mitigate the underlying social damage wrought by economic shutdowns. Particularly within marginalized communities already dealing with a host of other challenges.

ACCESS program graduates serve as a reminder of how a relatively low-cost social assistance program can deliver significant return on investment down the line. 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 taxpayers and members of the workforce while serving their communities in the process.




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