Education and Advanced Learning Minister James Allum is under attack and accused of trying to grab control over what universities teach.
Allum's proposed Bill 63 would give the minister and cabinet "the power to effectively determine what courses and programs are taught at universities," said University of Winnipeg president Lloyd Axworthy.
"This you would expect to find in a totalitarian state," said Jim Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers.
The bill gives the minister 'the power to effectively determine what courses and programs are taught at universities'
"It's appalling that any government in Canada, especially an NDP one, would do what this government is doing. This is a naked attack on universities."
Prof. Thomas Kucera, incoming president of the University of Manitoba Faculty Association, charged: "Bill 63 gives the minister the right to determine the mandate of any university. The government would gain the power to determine what sort of institution any post-secondary institution will be, a decision that can be made on purely political grounds."
University of Manitoba president David Barnard was more circumspect Tuesday, but said: "It seemed to us it was going a little further than it should have."
There's nothing to worry about, Allum said Tuesday -- all he wants to do is reduce red tape so universities can provide a quality education while making it clear the minister is ultimately "accountable for what happens in post-secondary education."
'It seemed to us it was going a little further than it should have'
"Our goal here is to create a strong post-secondary system in Manitoba," Allum said in an interview. Through consultation that will develop the wording of Bill 63's regulations, he will "ensure that each university is able to play to its strength, develop a mandate for each university."
Allum scoffed at any notion he would be calling the shots on courses or programs.
He said he is an academic with a PhD and is committed to academic freedom.
Allum had said when the provincial budget was announced late this winter he would be bringing the Council on Post-Secondary Education (COPSE) into his office.
'This is a naked attack on universities'
Universities said it would be more efficient to have COPSE, which provided government funding and advice at arm's length to universities and colleges, under the minister.
But schools say they only learned last Friday that far more sweeping powers were on the table and would be heard in committee at the legislature, beginning last Monday.
Turk said there are sections of Bill 63 that would allow the minister to veto any program change within a university.
"It gives the minister the right to determine the mandate of universities," Turk said. "This trumps all the powers given to the boards, the senates, in the University of Manitoba Act, the University of Winnipeg Act."
Kucera said while COPSE advised universities, Bill 63 gives the minister the power to impose his will.
"It will be difficult for universities in Manitoba to recruit and retain faculty, given that the government will have seized control over all academic matters," Kucera said.
"By turning the universities directly into instruments of government policy, it seriously erodes the academic integrity of these institutions."