Manitoba·Opinion

Access for all? Cuts to Manitoba post-secondary program create barrier for students who most need help

Getting ahead is becoming virtually impossible for people in severe financial need who want to go back to school and turn their life around, says a student in the U of M's Inner City Social Work Program — and the Manitoba government's recent changes only make that harder.

Access program cuts aren't just bad for students, but bad for all of Manitoba, says social work student

Cuts to Manitoba's Access programs, designed to make post-secondary education accessible to individuals who wouldn't otherwise have had an opportunity to attend university or college, will make it harder for many people to pursue that education, says social work student Christine Rossman. (Mark Felix/The Orange County Register/Associated Press)

Getting ahead is becoming virtually impossible for people in severe financial need who want to go back to school and turn their life around — and the Manitoba government's recent changes to its Access bursaries program only make that harder for students like me.

Last year, the Manitoba government terminated 210 provincial Access bursaries, valued at $1.5 million dollars, and cut the Access program by an additional $1 million. Access students who need financial support the most to finish up their degrees are now not receiving it.

As a current student of the Inner City Social Work Program at the University of Manitoba and an Access program participant, I have first-hand experience with how this program helps a person move into the social services field and stay off of oppressive and degrading Employment and Income Assistance.

At a time when I need it the most, my funding was cut by $2,000. This means I will have to decide whether to budget money to utilities and have no groceries for the next few months or have my utilities cut off, so I can use the money to feed my family.

Access programs, which are in place at the University of Manitoba, University of Winnipeg, Red River College and University College of the North, were designed to make Manitoba's post-secondary education accessible to individuals who wouldn't otherwise have an opportunity to attend.

The programs focus on providing opportunities for Indigenous students with multiple barriers to good education and recognize geographic, financial, social and academic barriers for other students. In addition, Access programming provides personal and academic supports. As a result, students can complete their course of study with dignity and confidence.

Graduates give back to their communities

Access programming and funding is extremely important to me, helping me succeed in university without accumulating huge debt loads as a single parent of three.

As a university student, I am setting a great example for my children. I appreciate the Inner City Social Work Program, where classes start at 9:30 a.m., giving me extra time needed to help prepare my son for school and programming. He needs extra supports due to the residual effects of a traumatic brain injury.

My plans are to take advantage of this opportunity, hit the ground running, and secure employment in the social services field.

Since 1985, 716 inner-city social work students have graduated due to this unique and beneficial funding. These graduates now work as social workers, helping others in many parts of our community and for the Manitoba government. Undoubtedly, future generations could also benefit from the Access program to move from dependency to giving back and becoming taxpayers. 

University students rallied at the Manitoba Legislature in October 2017 to call for a continued cap on tuition fees. Rising tuition costs are another hit to students who have lost funding they relied on through the province's Access program, says Christine Rossman. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Graduates from the Inner City Social Work Program are sought after by inner-city organizations and many are hired right away. Inner-city social workers are well equipped with many different types of social work training and theoretical perspectives. Our clients will benefit from students with lived experiences of complex poverty who can relate to the multiple barriers clients are facing.

The provincial government's new "streamlined" student aid financial package promised equity and access for students. On the contrary, it has added barriers for me and my family to try and overcome. The government is telling us to apply to the Manitoba Scholarship and Bursary Initiative, but this does not work for students like me.

It does not provide adequate financial support as the Access program did. And many are scared off by the high cost of university, with tuition costs at the U of M and the University of Winnipeg rising by 6.6 per cent this past year. Research published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives finds that low-income students are deterred from entering university when loans are the only option for funding.

Grants and bursaries are the best way to eliminate financial barriers and enable social mobility through post-secondary education. Instead this program was cut with no notice. The problem is I need the additional funding now to survive this school year. 

Jumping through hoops for funding

Another problem is that student aid is now requiring me to jump through hoops and prove to them I am not living with my ex-husband by faxing our final agreement, which I had sent previously. I refaxed the document over three weeks ago. Funds were due to be dispersed on April 24. On April 25, I phoned student aid for a third time. They told me my funding would take another three to four weeks. 

As a result, I had to share books with another student and got behind on my readings, I had to spend extra money for bus fare because I did not have enough money to purchase a bus pass, and I had to let the U of M cashier's office know my payment would be late.

A week later I checked my account balance and found out that some student aid funding had been deposited. Already in school, I had to scramble to get properly organized.

My head is spinning. How does the provincial government expect students to succeed when they keep adding obstacles? I am exhausted from all the disorganization. So much for making things easier on students.

The Access program funding should be reinstated and expanded so that more students in need can get help to turn our lives around … and give back to Manitoba.

In response to the changes made by the provincial government, students from the Inner City Social Work Program formed an Advocation for Education Committee, holding the province of Manitoba accountable to enable enrolled students to complete their education without additional financial barriers, and advocating for a fully funded Access program for future students in need.

Following legal precedent set in 1995,  Access students will take the province of Manitoba to court for breach of contract for cutting off bursary funding mid-program.

The Access program funding should be reinstated and expanded so that more students in need can get help to turn our lives around, get a quality education, enter the labour force and improve our lives, the lives of our families, and our communities — and give back to Manitoba. 


This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Christine Rossman is a third-year social work student in the Inner City Social Work program at the University of Manitoba and a Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives-Manitoba research affiliate. 

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