The Selinger government is spending almost three times as much money putting tuition back in the pockets of students than it is to increase operating grants to cash-stressed universities.
Operating grants to all universities for the 2014-15 academic year increased by $13.7 million in the recent provincial budget.
Figures supplied by the province for the 2012 taxation year -- the most recent for which information is available -- show the government returned $36.8 million to university graduates in rebates and another $2.8 million on advance tuition rebates for current students.
The province introduced the tuition rebate, subject to maximum percentage and dollar-figure caps, in 2007 as an incentive for grads to remain and work in Manitoba after graduation. The government introduced annual advance rebates capped at $500 a student in 2010 as a further incentive.
Those rebates continued NDP policies since they formed government in 1999 of reducing the costs for students to attend university.
The province initially froze tuition at 1999 levels, while also further rebating 10 per cent of tuition to students -- a move that cost more than $10 million a year.
That practice has now ended, but universities by law may only raise tuition at the rate of provincial economic growth.
Neither University of Manitoba president David Barnard nor University of Winnipeg president Lloyd Axworthy would comment on the rebate figures.
Nevertheless, when Finance Minister Jennifer Howard brought down her budget, Axworthy had accused the NDP of failing to address the longstanding funding gap between U of W and U of M and Brandon University.
Combined with low tuition, that put U of W in a tough position, said Axworthy. On a per-student basis, U of W is thousands of dollars behind the other two schools, he said.
Axworthy said the U of W will have to chop at least $2 million in spending to make ends meet this coming fall.
"There is an equity issue, a fairness issue," said Axworthy, who believes the province made a mistake by legislating the tuition cap at the rate of provincial growth.
The U of W isn't asking for a full change overnight to a system based on funding operating costs based on the number of credit hours students take, he said: "We're looking for $3 or $4 million."
Every other province works enrolment or course loads into its funding formula, rather than just applying an increase to the previous year's grant.