Another year, another budget and another extension to the flawed tuition freeze policy.
Political posturing and “optics” have again taken precedence over sustainability and good governance. Has the provincial government been bullied by student activists into arbitrarily maintaining the current tuition freeze policy for yet another year? All evidence would suggest this is the case.
It was interesting, if not entertaining, to see the student union representatives abandoning their ideological arguments and resorting to the “liar, liar, pants on fire” argument to shame the NDP government into holding the line on the existing policy based on a bulleted point on an obscure pamphlet handed out during the election campaign.
But then, that is the inevitable aftermath of election promises that are well known to be unsustainable.
This government has created its own monster.
Since 1999 the NDP has perpetrated the misguided and unsustainable tuition freeze on Manitoba universities, and in doing so it has created a sense of entitlement amongst a fringe group of post-secondary students the voice of which is notably larger than its representation.
For the tuition freeze activists, any hint of removing the tuition freeze is a call to arms.
Unfortunately, their efforts to lobby government for increased operating funding are notably lackluster in comparison. For them, there is no equation. They don’t have to balance the books.
It has been demonstrated in Statistics Canada reports and other published works that no correlation exists between tuition and enrolment rates. The tuition freeze policy fails in its fundamental purpose to increase accessibility for post-secondary studies. Fortunately, a large and growing number of students appreciate the importance of adequate financing to secure a quality education. Their growing dissatisfaction with destructive funding policies to post-secondary institutions is becoming more and more obvious.
This was illustrated this past year in September when the Faculty of Engineering, having increased its tuition by 38 per cent due to the leadership of the faculty’s own students, had the largest enrolment increase in any faculty across the entire campus. Accessibility clearly was not an issue, even with the dramatic and necessary increase in tuition.
The fundamental issue here is one of competitiveness. If we, as a province, want to compete in a knowledge-based economy, then we must properly support and grow the post-secondary institutions that provide graduates necessary to build that economy.
With an average dollar input per student of close to 20 per cent less than even our neighbor Saskatchewan, Manitoba is continuously falling further and further behind in terms of competitiveness and the quality of education provided. More sessional instructors, antiquated laboratory facilities, buildings in dire need of repair are all factors that have been identified time and time again in the media and continue to be ignored by this government. The seven per cent increase in operating grants in this budget is once again less than the minimum amount requested by university administrations to simply maintain the status quo. The government will compare figures with the 90’s to make its case. Its high time they realize the 90’s are a decade past, and we need to compete today and into the future.
In fairness, there is some good news in the government’s proposed tax rebates over time for university graduates who return to or remain in the province. The tuition rebate program as originally proposed in principle by the previous provincial government should both reduce student debt load and grow the Manitoba labor force, and is a far better policy approach than the current tuition freeze.
Why should Manitoba taxpayers subsidize the education of those who take advantage of our low cost post-secondary education system only to head off to fuel the economies of Saskatchewan and Alberta? The taxpayer is much better served seeing tax dollars used to rebate the tuition costs of those who choose to stay in the province and participate in building our economy.
Each individual post-secondary student is the primary beneficiary of the degree which they earn and, as such, should be individually responsible to carry their appropriate share of the cost of that degree.
I know when I graduated from engineering in 1996, before the days of the tuition freeze, all I owned fit into a beat-up Chevy Cavalier and I had a handful of student loan agreements in one hand and my degree in the other to start my life ahead.
That degree was the greatest investment I ever made, and I take considerable pride in having paid my fair share. I sometimes wonder if the students who support the tuition freeze are in some sense cheating themselves. I hope not, and wish upon them the time and maturity to realize the value that post secondary education can bring.
James A. Blatz is associate professor and associate head of the Department of Civil Engineering, University of Manitoba. He is also a member of the Frontier Centre for Public Policy board of directors.