Underfunding higher education is hurting Manitoba's economy

With an election coming up, proposals for new government funding are a dime a dozen. However, political ideas that will fuel Manitoba’s success in the modern knowledge-based economy are in short supply. The most direct way is to encourage innovators, writes Joanne Seiff.
One way to spur Manitoba's knowledge economy is to invest in higher education, writes Joanne Seiff. (Getty Images)

With an election coming up, proposals for new government funding are a dime a dozen. However, political ideas that will fuel Manitoba's success in the modern knowledge-based economy are in short supply. The most direct way is to encourage innovators.

Manitoba has the potential to bolster its university system, an important nucleus of innovation, and create a rich consortium of intellectuals. Our province needs to put its weight behind critical thinking and creating spaces where ideas matter.

Doesn't this exist already? Well, no. As Jo Holness pointed out in her recent CBC opinion piece, our university budgets have gotten increasingly tight in recent years.

There's the obvious leaking ceilings after rainstorms or a heating system dripping glycol into labs, and then there are the invisible cuts that affect every student and the province's future.

Manitoba isn't against higher learning. Our province doesn't prioritize electrical engineering over French literature, as U.S. Governor, Matt Bevin of Kentucky, suggests. Most politicians and educators realize that no matter what discipline the student learns, it's learning how to think that matters.

Yet, locally, instead of fostering critical thought, there's been a slow cutting of resources that affects every undergraduate and grad student. How does this work? The Manitoba NDP froze higher education tuition from 1999 to 2009, promising to deal with rising costs by increasing provincial support. Ultimately, provincial support came up short.

Tuition is rising again, especially for international students, who pay up to three times as much as Canadian students. Just as Winnipeg's 14-year property tax freeze created an enormous backlog of deferred infrastructure maintenance, the higher education tuition freeze has created similar problems.

Provincial support hasn't kept up with inflation, even with tuition hikes. Professors, essential to the university's core function, have felt the pinch. University professors teach, do research and offer service to the community. Their research must fund itself. This requires professors to raise money by writing grants to sustain their labs and students, to purchase up-to-date equipment and even to fix those pesky leaks.

At the same time, their teaching and community service must continue at a steady pace. To maintain this juggling act, some professors receive teaching support—graduate student teaching assistants.

The teaching assistants (TAs) grade exams, help teach laboratory exercises or lead discussion groups. At many North American universities, each TA might work as much as 20 hours per week for one course.

At the University of Manitoba, many science courses are allocated 50-100 hours of TA support for the whole term. At $1,500 a course, the funding for a grad student teaching assistant at the university is so low graduate students might take as many as four teaching assistant positions at once to meet their basic needs.

Due to the limited funding for teaching assistants, professors take up the slack. Instead of doing research, or answering student questions, professors prep labs and mark papers, work easily within the TAs' capability.

Professors pressed for time, can't spend too long grading complicated assignments. In the sciences, many students don't write a multi-page term paper in their discipline until their third year of study. There's just no one to grade it before then—too many students and too little time.

Provincial politicians focus on undergraduate education's affordability. What about the quality of the education on offer? If we want graduates to become critical thinkers, capable of answering big questions and producing innovative ideas and products, we must train them in these skills and continue nurturing the critical thinkers already in our midst. 

Imagine if a TA earned enough to focus on working with one professor and one course per term. The TA might gain valuable experience in mentoring undergraduate learners, thus making the graduate education more worthwhile. The professor might delegate tasks to the grad student, exposing students to more and different minds in the field.

Educational problem-solving then relies on a network of teachers and learners, rather than a single directive from the top. The professor then spends more time writing grants, doing research and creating new work in her field.

A knowledge-based economy relies on both the brains and the collaboration of well-educated people. Yet, innovators need the support of government, industry and university leaders. Those entities must collaborate to foster the growth of new technology and ideas.

It starts with small steps. Raise the funding for teaching assistants at local universities. Free up professors' time. Hire support staff to help with bureaucratic administration such as travel reimbursement and grant management.

Focus professors' time on what matters: education, research and service, so the province gets more for its buck.

What about the cost of a university education? Four years of undergraduate study in Winnipeg costs about the same amount as a year and a half of an average U.S. university tuition. Is the quality here equivalent? Do we get what we pay for? There are many good reasons for higher education to be inexpensive but there is no excuse for a cheap education of poor quality.

Can Winnipeg equip our most highly educated intellectuals with the resources they need to do their jobs? Virginia Woolf suggested that women writers need "a room of one's own." It takes education, money, time and space for thinkers to create the big ideas we need going forward. How about providing all that? What about a space where the ceilings don't leak?

Joanne Seiff is the author of two books. She writes, designs and teaches in Winnipeg.