Manitoba post-secondary bursary program $5M short of donation target as deadline looms

The Manitoba government replaced a rebate system with a scholarship and bursary program last year meant to drum up donations from the private sector for post-secondary students, but as the end of the fiscal year nears the program is $5 million short of its $13-million target.

Province set sights on $13M from private sponsors by 2017-18 fiscal year end; only $8.2M raised so far

The Manitoba Scholarship and Bursary Initiative aimed to have post-secondary schools raise $13 million in private donations by the end of the 2017-18 fiscal year, with the province matching that with $7 million. A preliminary count suggests universities and colleges raised at least $15.9 million. (Mark Felix/The Orange County Register/Associated Press)

The Manitoba government is millions of dollars short of a donation target it set last year for its post-secondary scholarship and bursary program, and with the fundraising deadline just weeks away, the Opposition NDP says the province has put too much faith in contributions from the private sector.

The Opposition grilled the Tory government during question period Thursday about a $4.8-million shortfall the province is facing for its Manitoba Scholarship and Bursary Initiative. The province was hoping colleges and universities could raise $13 million from private and corporate donors by March 31, but just $8.2 million has been raised thus far, according to information obtained through freedom of information requests filed by the NDP in January and February.

"This is a vital program to allow students access to post-secondary education and at this point they don't have any other options," NDP education critic Matt Wiebe said.

"Their tuition is going up, funding for their universities is going down, fees are going up, health care for international students is being taken away, all at the same time that bursaries aren't meeting the government's goals, so they're left without any options right now."

Matt Wiebe is the education critic for the NDP. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

Last year the province announced it was phasing out the Tuition Fee Income Tax Rebate and Advance Tuition Fee Income Tax Rebate, discussed scrapping interest-free student loans and passed legislation to lift a cap on tuition fees.

The 2018-19 provincial budget dropped Monday and included a one-per-cent (or $6 million) funding cut to post-secondary institutions, and Education Minister Ian Wishart confirmed Wednesday the province is considering pulling universal healthcare for international students.

Premier Brian Pallister campaigned on a promise to boost provincial post-secondary scholarship funding from $9 million to $20 million, with two-thirds of the money coming from sponsors in the private sector and the rest (about $7 million) from provincial coffers.

Wishart said it's possible some colleges and universities are waiting until the 2017-18 fiscal year comes to a close at the end of the month before reporting the final tally for their donations.

"We are seeing good participation in this program and we're very confident we will reach the goal," Wishart said.

"I understand why [the NDP are] concerned, but much of the money comes in from endowments — they tend to come in in the last month, because frankly why would they take them out early — they would lose interest. So I think they have to be patient and wait until we get to the end of the fiscal year."

Last fall Wiebe criticized the province for not keeping pace with its fundraising target. At the time, only $2 million had come in from corporate contributors. Wishart countered by saying it was unfair for the NDP to speculate about the target midway through the donation timeline.

"We've seen time and time again this minister say, 'Wait, the money is coming,'" Wiebe said. "And here we are at the end of the fiscal year and it's clear that the money isn't coming in in the way this government hoped."

Manitoba Education Minister Ian Wishart says they province expects some private donors will step up before the end of the fiscal year on March 31. (Holly Caruk/CBC )

He said he imagines universities are "scrambling" to find donors as the deadline looms and said it is up to the Pallister government to pitch in and cover a shortfall, if indeed there still is one two weeks from now.

Wishart said because this is the first year for the program, some universities and colleges may be encountering challenges.

"We have some institutions that this is the first time they've done this, so this is a bit of learning curve for them and we may have to work with them moving forward."

He said the previous provincial program only committed $4 million for post-secondary support every year, and he maintains the Tory program is still an improvement for prospective students considering pursuing higher education.

"Support in the past was a rebate way down the road, and frankly many students were never able to achieve on that because if they didn't happen to stay in the province of Manitoba, it didn't work for them," he said.

"We are putting our money up front, giving students supports right up front, so we think that that's the way things should be done. It's what they asked for."

According to the access to information request the province spent just under $25,000 on ads for the bursary and scholarship program that ran in publications including Canstar, Postmedia, Metro, Brandon Sun, Thompson Citizen and both student news publications at the U of M and University of Winnipeg.