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Chipping away at our universities

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University of Winnipeg graduates wave to thank family and friends at the institution's June 2013 convocation.

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES Enlarge Image

University of Winnipeg graduates wave to thank family and friends at the institution's June 2013 convocation. Photo Store

Manitoba universities have been in the news as a result of provincial legislation, Bill 63, which would have given new powers to the minister and government that would have weakened crucial principles of academic freedom and institutional independence. These principles, bedrocks of higher education, ensure freedom of thought and expression by restricting undue government interference and control.

In good faith, the province listened to the concerns of faculty, students and administrations and responded. It amended the bill to correct the imbalance between government and institutional authorities, allowing institutions to set their own mandates and have directional control over their programs.

Still, the pending legislation is an opportunity to draw attention to the state of our institutions of higher learning, the well-being of which is vital to Manitoba's social and economic success. It is time for a more serious treatment of the role our universities and colleges play in our community.

First, the issue of independence. Universities provide new ideas, innovation, opportunities for debate and spaces for a diversity of perspectives and cultures. The fullest exploration and expression of these things cannot occur if universities are subject to narrow, restricted political views and bureaucratic agendas. These agendas have a tendency to seek uniformity and sameness.

It is important we do not confuse 'efficiency' and 'efficacy' by substituting centralized government decision-making for that of our boards and senates. Our institution-based governing bodies are sensitive to financial realities and the availability of resources, as well as labour market and social needs, and treat their fiduciary responsibilities as a public trust. They are widely representative of our local community and understand post-secondary education and research, as well as local institutional priorities and concerns.

Canadians have a high level of trust in universities. In fact, they scored the highest of any public institution (including all levels of government, hospitals and public schools), according to a survey on public perceptions of university autonomy and accountability conducted by EKOS Research in 2014. Respondents overwhelmingly supported universities (77 per cent) over governments (17 per cent) when asked who was best to make decisions around allocating funds for academic programs.

Consider this: When I arrived at the University of Winnipeg as president in 2004, I discovered the level of participation of low-income students had not changed in more than 10 years -- despite four years of a provincially mandated tuition freeze. We struck a task force on accessibility, which resulted in our Opportunity Fund to provide fast-track bursaries, tuition credits to future students and a tuition waiver for youth coming out of the foster care system. The result is more than 1,500 low-income bursaries have been awarded so far, with 238 graduates to date and more graduating this week. We exercised local independence to tailor a program that fit the community we wanted to serve.

The centrally imposed restriction on tuition persists, however. Confusing the issue of accessibility by describing it as a problem of affordability alone continues to result in barriers to access in our system.

It also adds to the growing gap in the quality of education Manitoba institutions can provide when compared with institutions across Canada and the world. At U of W, our tuition rate for students in basic arts and science is just over $3,500 per year. In our peer group of mid-size universities -- think U of Regina, Trent and Mount Allison -- the average tuition fees exceed $5,000. Added up, this means those institutions benefit from up to $20 million more in operating funds every year. Don't think for a moment the impact of this difference over more than a decade isn't a big factor in promoting a quality education system.

In this province we still do not fully appreciate or support the work of our universities as economic drivers, as creative urban developers, as employers and job creators. The economic impact of our institution exceeds $250 million annually. This represents a 4:1 return on provincial investment. What's more, over the last decade, U of W has contributed close to $220 million in capital development to the reshaping and renewal of our downtown and West End neighbourhoods.

We've had substantial government support for this physical renewal; less so for what goes on in those buildings. Research on MRI scans, mental health and housing, diabetes treatment, water toxin impacts, models of northern governance and models of child learning, as well as aboriginal education and development are all taking place here. These are matters of great consequence to our community. To supplement government funding, we are attracting a significant amount of private-sector investment to support our activities.

One issue that really bothers me is the focus on training as opposed to university education as the way to promote economic growth. The truth remains that university graduates have higher employment rates and better incomes than college graduates. But that's not the issue. Both should be equally seen as prime importance to community well-being. Employers want people who can write clearly and think coherently.

Furthermore, universities educate our youth and our citizens more broadly to be carriers and innovators of democratic enhancement in Canadian society and around the world. We live in an era of widespread expressions of democratic desire across the globe. The defining character of our time may well be seen in the protests, barricades and determined will expressed on the faces of citizens in the streets of Ukraine, Syria and Egypt. The young and the university-educated frequently initiate these activities. They are persevering in an effort to do away with corruption, cronyism and authoritarian control by their governments.

This is a value for which there is no monetary measure. But it's the most precious possession we have. And it is in the halls of our institutions of higher learning that those values are taught and discussed, and where actions are formulated -- or at least should be.

It is a matter of concern we may not be up to the task because of the archaic structures of governance and funding. It is time to find out. It is important to open up a debate about the role our universities and colleges play in our community. Let further discussion begin.

 

Lloyd Axworthy retires this month after two terms as president and vice-chancellor at the University of Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 11, 2014 A7

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