Manitoba reverses planned post-secondary funding cut, but says institutions must meet workforce needs
Province offers 1-time 'transitional fund' worth $25.6M, includes reversal of cut announced in 2020 budget
The Manitoba government is changing course and giving post-secondary institutions some of the money it was planning to cut from their budgets in the next school year.
Premier Brian Pallister confirmed on Wednesday the province is scrapping a planned one per cent cut in the operating grant to post-secondary institutions.
He said Economic Development and Training Minister Ralph Eichler would have more to say later, after further discussions with officials at Manitoba's universities and colleges.
"He has shared a decision that we've made to revert away from the planned budgetary one per cent reduction to ensure that, at the very least, stable funding based on the previous year's allocation is going to be there for post-secondary in … this fiscal year," Pallister said at a morning media briefing.
The decision is a sudden reversal from the Progressive Conservative government, which in recent weeks has looked to cut costs as it pours money into the front-line response to COVID-19.
At one point, universities and colleges were asked to draw up scenarios for reducing labour costs by as much as 30 per cent.
Now, the government says it will help them adapt to the new economic realities stemming from the pandemic with a one-time "transitional fund" worth $25.6 million.
"It is essential that Manitoba has a strong and responsive post-secondary system so institutions are positioned to respond effectively to the new economic and social realities," Eichler said Wednesday in a prepared statement.
The $25.6 million total combines both a reversal of the grant cut announced in the 2020 budget, as well as pandemic-related savings resulting from lower staffing and operational costs on campuses, he said.
"This fund will support a new way forward to achieve success in a new and unknown labour market landscape," Eichler said.
In order to access the funding, the province expects each institution to create a plan for how it will use the funding to align programming with labour market demands, enhance online learning and handle uncertain enrolment numbers, specifically the expected decline in international students. Those plans must be submitted by Sept. 15.
In a letter sent to post-secondary schools on Monday, Economic Development and Training deputy minister Jan Forster emphasized the need for universities and colleges to adapt.
"Going forward, there will need to be more attention paid to supply and demand in our workforce," the memo said.
"Students receiving general degrees, with the important power skills employers tell us are needed in the workplace, such as critical thinking, problem solving and communication, must be connected to work during their studies to facilitate a quicker connection to employers upon completion."
With the province facing criticism for looking to cut costs during the pandemic, including numerous opinion pieces and "honk-a-thons" outside the legislature protesting the proposed cuts, some in the post-secondary sector said they are relieved by Wednesday's announcement.
"I'm pleasantly surprised that they have belatedly recognized that universities require stable funding, perhaps now more than ever," said Peter Miller, a University of Winnipeg classics professor and vice-president with the university's faculty association.
However, he remains concerned by the government position that curriculum must align with economic needs. Post-secondary institutions must remain autonomous, Miller said.
Value of higher education
University of Manitoba Students' Union president Jelynn Dela Cruz said the new funding doesn't make up for other budgetary shortfalls. The province's largest post-secondary institution was initially expecting a five per cent cut in its operating grant this year.
"With the reversal of the one per cent, it's only a Band-Aid, really, that doesn't cover the whole wound," said Dela Cruz.
NDP Leader Wab Kinew said the government is engaging in "damage control" now.
"The government might be trying to walk it back here, but it's not going to make a difference at the start of the next academic year, and those institutions will still be facing cuts going forward."
Some Manitoba schools, though, said Wednesday they welcome the province's announcement.
"The province is demonstrating their commitment to the future of Manitoba by making these funds available," University of Winnipeg spokesperson Kevin Rosen said in an email.
The U of W is set to receive $2.3 million, which is equivalent to the amount of provincial reductions. The university is still anticipating a revenue deficit of around $4 million due to COVID-19.
Red River College said it is encouraged by the new pool of money, and Brandon University said it will be able to apply for up to $376,000.
The University of Manitoba said it was studying the province's decision and wasn't prepared to comment on the announcement.