It's time that Manitoba looked at the cost to universities of keeping tuition low, University of Manitoba president David Barnard said Wednesday.
"This province has chosen to keep tuition fees among the lowest in the country. We do seem to be out of alignment with the rest of the country," Barnard said in an interview after the university's board of governors passed a budget including $4.98 million in cuts. The total budget for 2013-14 is $609 million.
"I wouldn't identify any particular source" of revenue that could be transferred to operating grants, Barnard said.
Nevertheless, he not only pointed to tuition fees that run about $2,000 a student below the national average, but also to tuition rebates the government gives post-secondary grads who stay here and advance rebates it gives to current students.
"There is a question of balance between the private purse and the public purse," Barnard said, a question between what institutions need and what government decides individuals will pay as a net cost of getting a post-secondary education.
Barnard asked why students in Manitoba pay so much less than students in most of Canada.
"That's an interesting place to start the discussion: Why are we different than the rest of the country?"
An aide to Advanced Education Minister Erin Selby said Wednesday it's not the first time the cap on tuition has been questioned. Capping tuition at the rate of inflation will remain, the aide said.
Statistics Canada reports the average Canadian undergraduate student with a maximum course load paid $5,581 for the current school year.
Manitoba undergraduate students with a maximum course load paid $3,588 in 2012-13, with only Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador undergrads paying less. Statistics Canada says fees ranged from a low of $2,415 in Quebec to $6,307 in Ontario.
The provincial government had promised to provide operating-grant increases of five per cent a year for three years, but in the final year of that commitment, reneged in last month's provincial budget and increased grants just 2.5 per cent. The Selinger government did continue to allow tuition fees to rise at the rate of inflation, set at 1.6 per cent for the 2013-14 school year.
University of Winnipeg president Lloyd Axworthy said in April it's time to discuss tuition fees, but Barnard's comments Wednesday are among the strongest the province's largest university has made.
Barnard said there is "solid evidence" the province recognizes the importance of post-secondary education, providing a 2.5 per cent grant increase in hard economic times.
Massive grants cuts in some other provinces are causing havoc to university jobs, programs and services, especially in Alberta.
Barnard said the U of M governors passed its draft budget without changes. "There's no anticipation at this time of a loss of jobs," he said.
He described the cuts -- less than one per cent of the operating budget -- as a reallocation of resources that will still see increased spending on scholarships and bursaries, student services and advancing indigenous education.
Brandon University will set its budget Saturday and U of W regents will set its budget next month.