University of Manitoba mulls layoffs as province cuts operating grant 5%

Manitoba's largest post-secondary institution will see its provincial operating grant reduced by five per cent as it joins other colleges and universities facing government funding cuts amid the COVID-10 pandemic.

Cuts translate to $17.4M hole in U of M 2020-21 budget, says university president

A building on the University of Manitoba Fort Garry campus.
Most of the cut will be just for this year, the U of M's president says, but the budget will get a permanent one per cent cut. (Bryce Hoye/CBC)

Manitoba's largest post-secondary institution will see its provincial operating grant reduced by five per cent as it joins other colleges and universities facing government funding cuts amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The move by the province amounts to a $17.3-million hole in the University of Manitoba's 2020-21 budget, president David Barnard said in a memo to staff Wednesday.

The U of M is contemplating a variety of measures to deal with the cut, including layoffs, voluntary work week reductions, hiring deferrals and reduced discretionary spending, he said.

The province told the U of M a four per cent reduction is only for this year, while the remaining percentage point of the cut will be "ongoing," Barnard said. 

That's contrary to what Premier Brian Pallister said earlier Wednesday, when he suggested the cuts are "temporary" with some services not needed during the pandemic.

"There are facilities that are not open right now that don't need staff in them to clean and maintain them. There are cafeterias that aren't serving food there are trips that don't need to be taken. There are conferences that don't need to be attended," said Pallister.

Post-secondary institutions and other provincially funded entities have been under pressure from the Manitoba government to find savings. Pallister has said the cuts are needed because of the fiscal challenges facing government during the pandemic.

Last month, universities and colleges were asked to identify ways to reduce their operating budgets by 10, 20 and 30 per cent. Then last week, the province suggested cuts to post-secondary, Crown and government departments would only amount to 2.2 per cent reductions in non-essential workforce expenditures.

'It's just unconscionable'

The president of the Manitoba Organization of Faculty Associations said though the cuts haven't been as deep as originally advertised, a five per cent blow to the U of M's bottom line will seriously impact the school. 

"Mr. Pallister seems to have this impression that we're all sitting around on our hands doing nothing, [while] nothing could be further from the truth. We're working harder than ever," said Scott Forbes, who is also a University of Winnipeg biology professor.

"To pile on with an additional five per cent cut, it's just unconscionable, and it just makes absolutely no sense when we're bursting at the seams with students."

Economic Development Minister Ralph Eichler echoed Pallister in noting millions of dollars in savings are expected from reduced university-related travel alone.

Economic Development Minister Ralph Eichler, seen here in a 2018 photo, says the province has introduced programs to help students during the pandemic. (Riley Laychuk/CBC )

In a statement emailed to CBC, he thanked the U of M and other post-secondary institutions for working to find ways to help trim operating costs right now, while touting the provincial supports announced for students.

Eichler said those include a pause on student loan repayment obligations and increased funding to the Manitoba bursary program. The province also introduced a new summer student wage subsidy program for employers, said Eichler, and made changes to the province's scholarship and bursary fund-matching program.

But those programs don't mean schools won't have to reduce their workforces.

A union that represents some U of M employees circulated a memo to its members last week saying more than 50 staff in communications, recreation and in the book store received layoff notices.

The Association of Employees Supporting Education Services has since filed a grievance against the U of M in response to the layoffs, according to a note posted on its website Wednesday.

"This continues to provide further evidence of this government's lack of respect for unionized public-sector workers."

Importance of education ignored: NDP

The U of M announcement comes two days after an internal memo from University of Winnipeg president Annette Trimbee told staff about a 3.7 per cent cut, 2.8 per cent of that stemming from the pandemic. 

Pallister stood by that move, among others, though he said it was a two per cent cut.

Mass layoffs and soaring youth unemployment due to the pandemic mean colleges and universities are facing a surge in demand.

NDP Leader Wab Kinew said students will ultimately bear the brunt of post-secondary cuts.

"There is a profound disregard on behalf of this government on the importance that education plays in our society," he said.

Manitoba NDP Leader Wab Kinew criticized cuts to the U of M announced Wednesday. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Post-secondary cuts "tie the hands of the organization to be able to do that work," he said.

"You're not just harming those people who are losing their jobs directly, you're also making everyone in the province of Manitoba worse off."

Jelynn Dela Cruz, president of the University of Manitoba Students' Union — which represents the more than 26,000 students at the university — wonders if the overall cuts to the budget could eventually amount to the 10, 20 or 30 per cent reductions Manitoba universities were directed to prepare for.

"We've heard the term '30 per cent cuts' floating around, and it feels like it will be a succession," she said.


Bryce Hoye


Bryce Hoye is a multi-platform Manitoba journalist covering news, science, justice, health, 2SLGBTQ issues and other community stories. He has a background in wildlife biology and occasionally works for CBC's Quirks & Quarks and Front Burner. He won a national Radio Television Digital News Association award for a 2017 feature on the history of the fur trade. He is also Prairie rep for outCBC.

With files from Bartley Kives and Ian Froese