Manitoba's universities shackled without hike in provincial grant, tuition, budget documents say
'They're raising tuition, but they're also not improving the education that's provided here': UMSU president
Even if Manitoba's universities hike tuition well above the rate of inflation, they say they'll struggle to maintain programming without a jump in provincial funding.
Post-secondary institutions will be increasingly challenged as operating costs rise, maintenance needs are shelved and some institutions either let staff go or leave vacancies unfilled, they say.
The University of Manitoba, Brandon University and Université de Saint-Boniface made the projections last year in budget submissions to the province, for which they were asked to assume no increase in provincial grants and a tuition hike of 6.5 per cent for the 2019-20 academic year.
The assumptions may foreshadow the next steps of a Progressive Conservative government that has scrapped the tuition cap, cut the tuition rebate, frozen funding to universities in 2017-18 and instituted a 0.9 per cent funding decrease the following year.
The province will reveal its funding priorities for the next fiscal year when it releases its budget on Thursday.
The government said Tuesday that it won't comment on the funding picture for the universities until their own budgets are finalized.
Other institutions, including the University of Winnipeg and Red River College, would not make their budget estimates available to CBC News.
Paying more, getting less
"What we've seen in the past couple years is a trend where they're raising tuition, but they're also not improving the education that's provided here," said Owen Black, vice-president external at the University of Manitoba Students' Union.
To deal with less provincial funding, the University of Manitoba's budget planning documents say, the institution would increasingly shift the cost of higher education onto students, but the $10 million that could be raised with higher tuition fees comes with risk.
Student enrolment has flatlined, and hikes in tuition costs and course-related fees could compromise recruitment, the report says.
"Although the University of Manitoba's tuition fees remain competitive, it is challenging to forecast the enrolment impact of rising tuition fees," the budget estimates document says.
The university, Manitoba's largest with enrolment of close to 30,000 students, is vulnerable to the effect of rising tuition on the 18 per cent of the student body made up of international students, the report also says.
A hike in tuition alone would only cover salary and inflationary increases, and the university suggested it would review and reallocate resources to fund all other operating requirements and strategic priorities.
If enrolment falls, the U of M may run a deficit.
"While the university will attempt to manage within a static provincial grant, unanticipated costs will put the balanced projection at risk, including costs associated with failing infrastructure."
The province provided $348.5 million to the university last year, which was 52 per cent of its budget.
The U of M warned in its submission that it has deferred more than $300 million in maintenance projects, and buildings will deteriorate further without an infusion of cash.
A major challenge is to renew the mechanical and electrical systems, mainly of buildings from the 1960s and 1970s. In the last two years, more than 31 campus buildings have lost power for up to 12 hours, the report said.
Lights out on testing
One morning, Black said, his exam was suddenly cancelled and then became a take-home exam because of a power failure that had nothing to do with the weather.
"I literally couldn't write my final [exam] because of deferred maintenance and the fact that the University of Manitoba doesn't have enough money to keep the power on properly," he said.
Looking forward, the U of M said it would continue to "invest and reallocate resources to high-priority programs and services," but that is challenging in the context of a stagnant operating grant, inflationary pressures and limited enrolment growth.
The university did not make a member of the administration available to comment.
Brandon University's budget estimates document says the government's "clear and consistent signals about its spending philosophy" makes a tuition hike exceeding five per cent the "expectation."
Provincial grants must increase by 2.4 per cent, or $906,000, to sustain existing programming, the school said.
Without that, 10 or more vacant faculty and staff positions could be left empty, sessional instruction could be cut back and course availability may shrink.
"At a university where most departments have three or four members, most positions can only be left vacant for a single year, if at all, if programs are to be offered for timely completion by students," BU warned.
Interim president Steven Robinson is sympathetic to the province's need to rein in spending and said his institution must simply work around it.
"Until we get our books in order, the province told us we shouldn't be expecting a lot of money to flow again," he said.
He was told post-secondary institutions could increase tuition as much as 7.5 per cent next year, as universities and colleges can increase rates by five per cent annually, plus the Consumer Price Index, which is 2.5 per cent, Robinson said.
At the Université de Saint-Boniface, stagnant provincial and federal funding would result in the reduction of 3.5 positions, while campus renovation projects and development opportunities for non-unionized staff would be put on hold, the budget document says. The institution would also postpone further investment in the counselling services that students want.
The province wouldn't reveal whether higher education will receive more funding or if the trend of static or slumping grants would continue.
Molly McCracken, director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives' Manitoba office, said the status quo harms low-income students and prevents social mobility.
Students shouldn't bear the brunt of the costs of higher education, she said.
"We need to remember that universities are publicly funded here in Canada and that's why they're available," she said. "We need to uphold and enhance that system, not starve it of resources."