KPMG's value-for-money report fails Manitoba's universities

KPMG's financial report for Manitoba has serious implications for the province's post-secondary institutions, says Joanne Seiff, which would hurt the province's students and economy.

Report's recommendations for post-secondary education in Manitoba get a failing grade, says Joanne Seiff

KPMG's recommendations on post-secondary education could have serious implications for Manitoba's institutions of higher education and for keeping graduates in the province, says Joanne Seiff. (CBC)

As a first year undergrad at Cornell, I sat in a crowded lecture hall. "Look to your left and right. Historically at this school? One of you wouldn't graduate," the dean told us.

Did anybody consider the graduation rates at universities like Cornell or Harvard (from which Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg dropped out) to be problematic? No, those elite institutions have high standards for entrance — and they raised grad rates considerably by helping capable students to succeed.

Even so, they knew there are other ways of measuring success than graduation rates.

Manitoba's institutions don't have the Ivy League's stringent entrance standards. But KPMG's financial report for Manitoba has serious implications for our institutions of higher education, suggesting the province should target funding "to programs that produce graduates in high-demand professions."

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister's government has already followed some of KPMG's suggestions on post-secondary education. Joanne Seiff says following through on others, like targeting funding to 'programs that produce graduates in high-demand professions,' would hurt Manitoba's students and economy. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Premier Brian Pallister's government has already followed the auditing firm's first suggestions, freezing operating grants and raising tuition. It's gotten rid of tuition tax rebates and frozen salaries of academic professionals.

Yet KPMG goes further. It suggests government funds to higher education should be used to force academic administrators to eliminate programs called ineffective or "duplications." Finally, it suggests that post-secondary education programs should be held accountable for outcomes, which would be measured and reported to the province.

The initial effort to raise tuition made sense to some academics. Some thought the rise in tuition could rehabilitate crumbling university infrastructure. It also might improve salaries and working conditions for employees.

After all, compensation for professors at the Manitoba's universities ranks near the very the bottom of all Canadian universities, according to a 2012 Maclean's report. In Manitoba, financial support for graduate students, the "worker bees" of academia, also lags far behind.

I'm not an objective observer in this case — I'm married to a professor and I have taught at both the U of Manitoba as well as at the college/university level in the U.S. These issues about how Manitoba's academia functions? They matter to my household.

Manitoba needs its most important intellectual assets to educate future leaders. The best and the brightest aren't attracted to institutions with failing heat, leaky roofs, and low salaries. These problems existed during the NDP era. It seemed Pallister's government might see things differently.

University of Manitoba faculty on the picket line on Nov. 8, 2016. Manitoba professors' salaries continue to fall behind their peers, says Joanne Seiff, making attracting talent to Winnipeg challenging. Following through on KPMG's recommendations would only make the situation worse, she says. (Bert Savard/CBC)

Unfortunately, as shown by the U of M professors' salary freeze and strike last year, Manitoba professors' salaries continue to fall behind their peers. If attracting talent to Winnipeg was challenging before, this worsens the situation.

The Tories aren't improving salaries, research funding or infrastructure. The KPMG report speaks of streamlining and consolidating programs to avoid duplication and cutting programs found ineffective. This creates dire outcomes as academics become isolated in their specializations.

As it stands, a specialist in one academic field — say, at the U of Manitoba — might cross the hall to speak to a colleague. As well, she could cross town to collaborate with a colleague at the U of Winnipeg, or even go to Brandon for a few days. A coffee break for academics who share research interests can spark amazing collaboration and creativity. Pooling this intellectual energy with colleagues creates powerful outcomes and technological innovations.

Contrast this with the results of aggressive streamlining and cutting duplication.

A sole geneticist teaches in her biology department. Everyone relies on that professional to teach all of the genetics coursework. When courses are full, students cannot access that coursework in a timely way. Students can't finish their degrees on time.

If that geneticist gets sick, takes maternity leave, or a well-earned sabbatical? There might not be anyone qualified to teach this coursework, never mind continuing relevant research in the province.

If duplicate departments in other Manitoba universities are cut, there aren't other professors who work in the same field who can help out. Whether it's genetics or theatre, if we cut all redundancy, our students may have to leave the province if they cannot get the coursework they need to graduate.

'Factory approach' to education won't work

This entire approach to higher education forces our province to rely on politicians as the architects of our province's future economy, cultural life, and potential.

Historically, educators during and after the Industrial Revolution took this approach. They cultivated practices that would create "good factory workers." Instead of helping young people learn to think creatively and critically, they used repetitious drills, memorization and standardization. A good student managed these skills well—and graduated to an assembly line.

This may have worked when North America was full of manufacturing. Sadly, as those jobs left, many people were left behind too. Their education didn't enable them to learn the skills of a constantly changing service economy.

The Tories don't have a crystal ball to predict where they should invest increased funding. There's no hope that treating universities like industry will result in their performance outcomes.

Why? Simply put, creative, critical thinkers can innovate, create change, and become societal disrupters in a way that boosts and enriches our economy. A factory approach to education won't create that rich soil for novel endeavor.

The complex part? We cannot predict which poet, artist, or scientist will be the one with the most fruitful innovation. In fact, that person might even drop out, as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg did. Measuring graduation rates or enrolment levels can't predict which great young Manitoban will be enriched and encouraged, or by whom.

We owe it to Manitoba's students to fund bright academics as they teach, learn, mentor and innovate. We also must fix our institutions' broken buildings.

I used to teach university writing courses. If KPMG were a student in one of my classes, this report would get a low mark, and an encouragement to improve: Please revise.

Joanne Seiff is a freelance writer, designer and educator, and the author of several books. She moved to Winnipeg in 2009 because her husband was offered a position as a professor at the University of 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

Joanne Seiff is the author of three books. She works in Winnipeg as a freelance writer.