Governments in Canada have often turned to investments in higher education to generate hope and opportunity for young people and others seeking better jobs and social mobility. They may have a more receptive audience now more than ever, with younger generations facing increasingly precarious work prospects.

Manitoba, up until recently, had been no different than other provinces when it came to promoting university and college as a means to create opportunity, but proposed changes to post-secondary funding in the province may push that opportunity out of reach for some.

Between 2000 and 2015, university enrolment increased by 42 per cent and college participation increased by 52 per cent, according to the province. Expansion of the post-secondary sector, with over 400 new programs introduced — paired initially with a tuition-fee freeze and later a policy of limiting tuition increases to the rate of inflation — promoted access to advanced education in the province.    

With a new mandate and a priority on deficit reduction, the provincial government, now led by Premier Brian Pallister, is implementing changes to the post-secondary education system, and students are being asked to bear more of the burden.

Tuition could double in 10 to 12 years

Bill 31, introduced in March and debated this week at the Manitoba Legislature, will permit university tuition fees to increase up to five per cent, plus the rate of inflation, on an annual basis. This means that tuition could potentially double in the next 10 to 12 years.

The bill also removes restrictions on course-related fees. The government also is eliminating the Manitoba tuition fee income tax rebate, which allowed students to claim up to 60 per cent of eligible tuition fees. The rebate returned approximately $54 million annually to approximately 48,000 claimants who continued to be residents of Manitoba, offsetting a portion of the cost of their education.

Current students may see some increased relief as Budget 2017 did increase grants for bursaries by $1.875 million. However, this is a small fraction of the benefits being lost and the additional costs being imposed.

It is also unlikely that students are going to see any expansions or enhancements to programs for the extra money they will be paying. Grants to universities and colleges saw a 0.3 per cent increase in the budget, so direct funding to post-secondary education institutions is effectively frozen and is falling in inflation-adjusted terms, after annual increases in the two to three per cent range by the previous government.

The proposed tuition increase will only partially offset this change in policy. A new four-year wage freeze, "reached under duress" due to alleged government interference and threats of funding cuts in the bargaining process, is also likely unhelpful in attracting new faculty and retaining top talent.

Hikes increase enrolment inequality

The Manitoba Organization of Faculty Associations recently commissioned us to examine the impact of tuition fees on post-secondary enrollment. We found that while there is some debate in the literature regarding the magnitude of the impact, most agree that increases in tuition fees reduce post-secondary enrolment rates for low-income students.

Tuition fee hikes increase enrolment inequality, with students from well-off families taking the place of those from more modest backgrounds.  

Downloading the cost of education to students currently studying, as opposed to paying for it through progressive taxes on higher incomes, is not a new phenomenon. In Canada, post-secondary institutions in nearly all provinces began raising tuition fees considerably in the 1990s.

That policy shift resulted in greater enrolment inequality in provinces that witnessed increases in real tuition fees, and less enrolment inequality in provinces in which real tuition fees fell.

It is likely that enrolment inequality will rise in response to Manitoba's proposed changes without some dramatic change in grants to make education more accessible. Even then, the "sticker shock" may be too much to convince those struggling to make ends meet that they can risk the expense.

Far-reaching consequences

The financial consequences of higher tuition fees on students have shown to have negative consequences. It comes as no surprise that students living in countries with higher average tuition typically have more loans and higher debt loads.

While access to student loans do not appear to meaningfully increase university participation among low-income students, they produce financial burden and stress, creating additional challenges for these students.

Student debt also appears to impact career choice, with students less likely to pursue public interest jobs and more likely to pursue more lucrative jobs — for example, with lawyers more likely to seek work with for-profit corporations instead of with governments and non-profits.

In an era of high inequality and emboldened intolerance, saving money by reducing access to education for our most vulnerable citizens has the potential to compromise Manitoba's long-term social and economic interests.

"Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world," Nelson Mandela once said.

But Barack Obama may have put it best: "If you think education is expensive, wait until you see how much ignorance costs in the 21st century."


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