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Don't sacrifice universities on deficit-reduction altar

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Because we live in a knowledge-based economy, the need for a well-educated and flexible generation of employees, entrepreneurs, community builders and leaders is critically important to the future health of Manitoba. The data is conclusive: a university degree is the surest path to prosperity. Jobs for university graduates have grown twice as fast as those for college graduates since 2008. Governments are presently focused on closing the skills gap in Canada, but employers are saying they need more university graduates with critical thinking and transferable skills. This is not about universities or colleges: Canada needs to fund both to be effective.

Yet precisely when we most need increased investment in post-secondary education, we see the opposite happening. Thirty years ago, Canada was a leader among Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development countries in university attainment rates. Now Canada ranks 15th of 34 countries. While others are growing and investing in their university system, in Canada government support has dropped nearly 50 per cent since 1978, when average support was more than $20,000 per student. By 2012, per student funding was $10,900.

When we measure university participation for youth, we find that Canada slips to 21st place. Here again, Canada is falling behind a wide array of nations including the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom, and Korea.

As we prepare to hear details of the provincial budget on April 16, we need to remember that our mission has also changed substantively in the last decade. At the University of Winnipeg, enrolment is no longer solely about 18-year-olds following in their parents' footsteps. We have created strong community outreach and support programs that encourage non-traditional students so they may achieve personal and economic success, including adult learners, war-affected youth, First Nations, Métis and Inuit students and new immigrants. These supports, under a banner called Community Learning, are possible only because of generous private donors and assertive fundraising. It is these non-traditional learners who are the future of this city and province. That is a demographic certainty and they need our support. Our community outreach is effective. In the past decade, enrolment at University of Winnipeg has increased by 55 per cent to meet growing demand. Manitoba's best resource is its diverse young population -- but only if it has fair access to higher learning.

U of W's role has also broadened. We are partners in downtown redevelopment, a hub for research and expanded classroom and digital learning opportunities, and a meeting place for community debate and discussion. We are a magnet for academics, students, entrepreneurs, newcomers and unconventional ideas that drive new jobs.

Manitoba remains one of the most affordable places to study in North America. But a decade of frozen tuition rates followed by restrictive legislation and insufficient operating grants is simply not a sustainable way to manage our university system.

If we can no longer rely on a traditional government funding model, we must be given the flexibility to attract new revenues through innovative partnerships, commercialization of research, fundraising and other sources. It is our responsibility to seek a new way forward. We must make universities sustainable for present and future generations, who expect us to provide them with high quality post-secondary education and not sacrifice them on the altar of deficit reduction. We need the province to give us more flexibility both in the choice of courses and the delivery of curriculum, more autonomy in decision making and the capacity to derive revenue from a variety of sources. Overly centralized decision-making that is not directly relevant to the promotion of first-class higher education in Manitoba is simply not helpful. We must build institutions that are innovative, collaborative, and independent.

A university education changes lives. In order to compete in today's globalized, competitive and increasingly knowledge-powered economy, Canada needs to invest in its human resources. This is about more than statistics. It is about creating a climate of possibility for the next generation of Manitobans, so that they can continue to develop our province and country, and tackle the critically important global challenges we are expecting them to solve.


Lloyd Axworthy is the president and vice-chancellor, University of Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 10, 2013 A9

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