There was applause all around for Premier Gary Doer's promise to increase student financial assistance by $4 million, including a new $2-million graduate students' scholarship that will give Manitoba a similar pot of money to that which Ontario schools have used for years to lure master's and PhD students.
And Doer's vow to continue freezing tuition at 1999 levels, combined with a 10 per cent rebate to students, leaves only Quebec and Newfoundland with lower fees.
But there was no mention yesterday of how much money to offset the freeze that a re-elected NDP government would pump into operating grants -- now universities' primary source of increased revenue to maintain or improve the quality of education.
Last month's budget increased grants by 2.9 per cent and the continued phasing-out of universities' property taxes saved another 1.1 per cent.
Nevertheless, Brandon University is cutting 2.5 per cent from every faculty and department, University of Manitoba will chop $2.1 million, and the financially-troubled University of Winnipeg will tighten its belt even further this year.
"If our revenues are going to continue to grow at less than costs, it will make it difficult" to maintain programs, staff and equipment, Robert Kerr, U of M's academic vice-president, said yesterday.
"It really is half a step in the right direction," said U of M Students Union president Shawn Alwis. Students need a long-term commitment to adequate funding and continued capital support, he said.
Alwis hammered the NDP for quietly dropping the learning tax credit several years ago; the $300 that the average student no longer saves wipes out the 10 per cent tuition rebate, he said.
"The government really swapped one for another. We'd really like to see the reinstatement of the learning tax credit," he said.
"The announcement addresses the access issue, but there's (operating) funding that has to be addressed," said Chris Minaker, president of the U of W Students Association, adding, "Tuition fees need to be dropped further."
And the government should reject special higher fees for professional faculties such as law and dentistry at U of M, Minaker said. "If they're not going to enforce (the freeze), what's the point?"
Minaker said Liberal leader Jon Gerrard's promise yesterday to make student loan payments deductible from provincial income tax earned in Manitoba fails to keep students from going into debt in the first place.
"It goes back to doing things cart before the horse. It just doesn't address the core issue -- students are required to live in poverty," he said.
"It is critical government address the student debt load -- they're being forced to take out student mortgages at 18," Minaker said. "Bursaries are far preferable to loans."
There is a widespread presumption that the tuition freeze and rebate have led to enormous increases in enrolment, but no one has done a detailed analysis to prove how much impact they have had on students' choices.
Without lowering standards, university enrolment is up 23.5 per cent since the NDP's 1999 election win, and college enrolment is up 18.1 per cent.
Nevertheless, both U of M and U of W say they're getting near their capacity, and the size of Grade 12 graduating classes will not level off until about 2008.
So how have the freeze and rebate affected costs for Manitoba's university students?
The average Canadian tuition this year was $3,641, and fees are soaring in Ontario, British Columbia and Nova Scotia.
Tuition for a full load of undergraduate courses in Manitoba in 1999 was about $3,000. The 10 per cent rebate has brought that fee down to $2,700 for the average student.
But if tuition had increased by even a conservative five per cent each year, students would be facing a bill of $3,646.52 this coming September.
And if the NDP wins re-election and the freeze continues to the next election in 2007, students would still be paying $2,700 instead of $4,432.37 based on compounded annual five per cent increases.
PHOTO JOE BRYKSA/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS