Manitoba’s Flagship University is Failing Students

Commentary, Education, Gerry Bowler

Honourable Ian Wishart
Minister of Education and Training
Room 168 Legislative Building
Winnipeg. MB R3C 0V8

Dear Mr. Wishart,

As someone who has taught History at the University of Manitoba for 25 years, I am deeply interested in learning more about your government’s plans for post-secondary education in the province. Having read both the mandate that the premier gave you on May 3, 2016 as you took up your cabinet position, and the article on your departmental website entitled “Manitoba’s Post-Secondary Education Strategy”, I can see very little that touches on the concerns that I have. Indeed, in your mandate letter there is scarcely anything that deals with our universities at all. Perhaps you could help me by answering a few questions about what you see happening at the University of Manitoba and the possible solutions you and your department may have considered.

As you will know from twenty years of Maclean’s magazine surveys, the University of Manitoba ranks consistently at, or near, the bottom of all Canadian universities of its type in most significant areas. Out of 15 large institutions in 2016, we ranked 14th in overall estimation. We were lowest in student satisfaction with their education, with their professors, with their administrators, and extracurricular activities. We were dead last in institutional reputation, 14th of 15 in retention of first-year students, and bottom of the heap in graduation rate. Inasmuch as this dismal record has been manifest since before the turn of the century, it would not be unfair to think that our flagship university has failed to provide the students of our province with anything like the quality of education they deserve. At this point, the prospect of even a mediocre university is a distant dream.

My first question, therefore, is: does this failure trouble you or your department? If it does, what plans are in place to improve our record? Have you approached your cabinet colleagues with data like this to encourage them make higher education a higher priority? If presiding over the worst-ranked university in the Medical Doctoral category is something that you are prepared to tolerate, as previous NDP administrations were, how would you advise parents and high school students in planning their educational future and choosing a university?

My next question concerns the failure to retain and to graduate students; any improvement here would save taxpayers, parents, and students enormous amounts of money, energy, and time. Every year I saw a significant minority of students in my introductory classes who had no skills to cope with the demands of a course that required serious reading and writing, or who had no interest in acquiring these skills, despite the massive investment in assistance available. Students of this sort will waste a couple of years of their lives, lose tens of thousands of dollars in tuition and opportunity costs, and emerge from their experience feeling a failure. Has your department considered standardized university entrance exams in literacy and numeracy, exams which might direct the less academically-prepared into a more appropriate future? If near-universal accessibility to a university education is a government policy, has your department considered making one of our universities an institution which aspires to elite (or at least, middle-of-the-pack) status and directing the lower-scoring students to another school in Manitoba?

And speaking of the unprepared, one of your departmental priorities appears to be attracting more international students. Having studied abroad myself, I am aware of the benefits of such an experience, both for the student and the host institution and country. It is certainly tempting to a cash-strapped university to bring in students who pay much more than locals, but this phenomenon is not without its problems. Students, even from a university-affiliated feeder system, may be given a false sense of their linguistic capabilities and discover that they really cannot handle courses in the humanities and social sciences. The result is too often academic failure, desperate temptations to cheat, and a dumbing-down of content by frustrated professors. These students are not unjustified in feeling betrayed and exploited. (For more on this, see Norm Friesen and Patrick Keeney, “Internationalizing the Canadian Campus”, University Affairs, August-September, 2013 or “The Flap over the Fluency Gap” by Ken McQueen, Maclean’s, November 1, 2013.) Is your department confident that the English-language requirements for admission to Manitoba universities are realistic enough for a student, and her professors, to be confident of a chance at success?

The new and controversial diversity admission policies of the Faculty of Education at the University of Manitoba have attracted considerable comment, much of it baffled or hostile. Given the scarcity of male teachers in the early grades, are your government and its appointees on the Board of Governors happy with the decision to hamper the chances of men being admitted to teacher training? Are you content with the policy that makes race a subject that privileges or penalizes applicants? Can you explain why suffering from mental illness should be an advantage in gaining entrance to a career in teaching? Does your department have data that supports the suggestion that sexual orientation, economic background or race of teacher makes a difference in student outcomes in our schools?

I wish you well in your tenure as Education Minister of our province and look forward to your reply to my questions.

Yours sincerely,

Gerry Bowler, Ph.D.

Senior Fellow

Frontier Centre for Public Policy