The Manitoba Skills, Talent and Knowledge Report on Higher Education

Nov 30, 2021 | Resources

Are the objectives and actions on the same path?

The Manitoba Organization of Faculty Associations (MOFA) has reviewed the Manitoba Skills, Talent and Knowledge Strategy report and is delighted that it acknowledges the key role that post-secondary education plays in Manitoba. We certainly support objectives such as improving participation in post-secondary education in Manitoba that currently ranks near the bottom of the country. We would also support measures that increase the participation of historically disadvantaged groups, though we await details on how this will be achieved. And we note that there is a sharp disconnect between these laudable aspirations and the actions of the current government that have exactly the opposite effect. For example, if we want to increase participation in higher education, it is not obvious how funding cuts to universities, past, present and future, will achieve that goal.

We also have concerns about the lack of consultation with university students and faculty during the preparation of this report. Minister Wayne Ewasko was emphatic about the broad consultation needed for an all-hands-on-deck approach. Faculty and students, who are the core of the university academic mission, have thus far been excluded from these stakeholder discussions. Faculty and students constitute the majority of the members on university Senates that have the authority – in legislation – to govern all academic matters including what programs are delivered, and how they are designed.

MOFA welcomes greater labour market and career information to help students consider job-related information, as well as interests and aptitudes, in their important decision of which university programs to pursue. We are not enthusiastic about the intrusion of government into these individual choices, especially coercive policies such as setting differential program fees to discourage participation in programs the government does not favour despite the preferences of students. This proposed policy interferes directly with university autonomy, which is protected in legislation, and risks students being steered into programs for short-term financial reasons.

Universities already have a strong record in preparing our graduates for the job market by virtue of providing them with the critical thinking, problem solving, leadership and communication skills that our economy demands. These are the durable ‘power’ skills that university graduates use in adapting to careers that are changing rapidly and are effectively unpredictable more than a few years out. Who for example, envisioned a decade ago that today’s jobs would include Social Media Managers, SEO Specialists or Sustainability Managers? These are jobs that are filled today by people who sought degrees across the arts, humanities, social sciences and sciences, and who pivoted quickly using their experience in communications and rhetoric, computer engineering and environmental studies.

We welcome initiatives that improve fiscal transparency, especially in light of recent events at Laurentian University where a secretive administration, aided and abetted by a Board of Governors with provincially appointed representatives, concealed a growing fiscal crisis for years. That has now left the university seeking creditor protection. We believe the solution lies in much greater transparency in the budgeting process, including the participation of faculty and independent auditors. We believe that more sunlight on the budgeting process would be the best disinfectant for this fiscal blight.

In Manitoba, the empirical data show that higher education works. It results in higher earnings, better health outcomes, and less reliance on social programs for university graduates. Statistics Canada tells us that in Manitoba those with a university degree have the lowest unemployment of any group in society, and are for all intents and purposes, fully employed. Given this remarkable record, we have to wonder what is broken about this system that requires heavy-handed government interference? If business and industry identify where more highly skilled workers are needed, government support will be required to enhance the capacity of the system to produce them. Increasing participation in higher education is the obvious solution, and to do so we shall need to expand the capacity of our system of higher education. We are puzzled, therefore, by the obvious conflict between that stated policy goal and the government’s actions: year-after-year decreases to funding that reduce the capacity of the system. If we are to increase that capacity, more — not less — investment is necessary.

And at the same time more of the financial burden is being shifted to students, parents and their families through higher and higher tuitions that increase barriers to higher education, especially for those groups already underrepresented.

We are puzzled too by government setting a policy goal of increasing participation by historically underrepresented groups — Indigenous and Métis students; people of colour; new Manitobans; and the economically disadvantaged – at the same time as announcing the introduction of outcomes-based funding that, again, does exactly the opposite.

Outcomes-based funding drives down the participation of these groups as the American experience with these systems shows. Outcomes-based funding models, such as used in Tennessee, have time after time failed to improve outcomes: they don’t move the needle on the performance indicators used such as graduation rates. Extensive experience shows that these systems are controversial, and require a lengthy and complicated implementation. And fixing the built-in the flaws of the system is expensive. The latter point — the expense — should not be lost on this government. Outcomes-based funding systems in the United States rely upon generous financial support to economically disadvantaged students — the Pell Grant system — provided by the federal government. No such system exists in Canada. Given that higher education is a provincial responsibility, it would require a large increase in support to students from low-income backgrounds, far beyond the current token programs offered by the Manitoba government. While that would be a welcome policy change, we are unsure that is what the current government actually intends.

We hope that the Minister’s announcement signals that the government is prepared to better align its policy goals with its policy actions, and we invite the Minister to engage with university faculty and other stake-holders, especially students, in a serious consultation about how best to meet the needs of our higher education system in Manitoba.