It's the first huge challenge for Education and Advanced Learning Minister James Allum -- does he sign off on a 326.7 per cent increase in graduate-student fees in the next two years at the University of Manitoba?
Heading into a provincial election next year, does Allum take the lid off the NDP's tight controls on the costs of attending post-secondary schools?
U of M grad students say the proposed increase in their continuing fees -- paid while they work on their theses after finishing classroom work -- from $703.15 to $3,000 by September of 2016 will be devastating.
U of M counters the proposed fees would put it on a par with University of Winnipeg's grad fees -- set, the province says, before legislation controlling fees was passed -- and still leave it more than $2,000 a year below the next least expensive of Canada's 15 largest universities.
Dean of graduate studies Jay Doering said Tuesday grad students pay $1.3 million a year in continuing fees, receive $2.6 million in financial aid, and cost $11.8 million to the university -- for professor supervision, administration and access to research facilities.
But, Doering emphasized, U of M is not asking permission to jack up fees enormously to help recover its costs -- every penny of the additional money will go into financial aid for the grad students.
"U of M has set as a priority enhancing support to graduate students," said Doering. By closing the gap with what other large universities can offer grad students, U of M can better attract and retain grad students, he said.
On Friday, Doering will take the proposal to the provincial council on postsecondary education (COPSE), which in turn will make a recommendation to Allum.
"This fee proposal is under consideration, and it would not be appropriate for the minister to comment until COPSE has completed its review of the current application," said an aide to Allum Tuesday.
Doering said low fees can deter prospective students, especially international students who equate lower fees with lower-quality programs. Unlike the foreign student tuition surcharge, the same continuing fees apply to all students.
Additionally, Doering said, grad students can receive a monthly $400 tax credit -- if they earn enough income to claim it -- which is worth far more than the $703.15 they pay in a year.
"It's a disincentive for a student to finish sooner," he said.
Doering said the university wants its own graduate students to advise it about how to allocate the new money among them.
The Graduate Students Association said the proposed fees, which came out of nowhere, would be devastating for many grad students.
"They may not be able to continue post-secondary education," warned Laura Rempel, president of the GSA.
Rempel said many graduate students are working, or supporting families, or both, and cannot work full-time on their theses, thus extending the years they pay continuing fees.
"(Financial aid) is not enough to have a good quality of living. We're all living quite frugally," Rempel said.
"Low tuition has attracted a lot of students who may not be able to access education in other places," Rempel said.
If fees go up, those students may go elsewhere or drop out of school.
The newly elected GSA executive first met with the administration May 6 and had until Tuesday to provide feedback -- not to U of M, but to Allum.
Rempel said the university did not give details on how the increased fees would boost financial aid.
The GSA will give a 15-minute presentation to COPSE's closed hearing.