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Don't weaken universities

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RBC recently said Manitoba will be among the nation's leaders in economic growth in 2013, a trend that has largely held steady since 2005, according to Manitoba Finance.

The University of Manitoba has been a driving force behind that success and we are partners in tangible symbols of community prosperity, including the construction of Investors Group Field and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

In recent budgets, the provincial government has shown wisdom in recognizing the benefits of multi-year, predictable funding for post-secondary education.

The U of M contributes $1.8 billion to the provincial economy and takes on critical issues facing our province, country and world, including human rights, indigenous achievement, environmental degradation and economic and social justice.

Eighty per cent of our graduates stay in Manitoba to build bigger futures for themselves and their families. This makes our university Manitoba's best retention program for medical professionals, engineers, architects, entrepreneurs, scientists, teachers, musicians, jurists, visual artists and critical thinkers.

Last year, the U of M reached some significant milestones that indicate our community is vibrant, dynamic and growing. These include record enrolment of more than 29,000 students, donor gifts totalling more than $20 million and nearly $160 million in sponsored research income.

This investment in research is critical. According to economists Charles Jones and John Williams of Stanford University, the return on investment for publicly funded scientific research and development can be as high as 100 per cent.

Unfortunately, the optimism in Manitoba and at our university is tempered by the fiscal challenges faced by the provincial government, our largest funding partner. The Selinger government currently is forecasting a deficit of $567 million for 2012-13, and is dealing with similar problems in the upcoming and future budgets.

As vice-chairman of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, I am aware other provincial governments have cut their investment in post-secondary education to deal with their own fiscal challenges. The governments of Quebec, Alberta and British Columbia have all cut support for universities and colleges to varying degrees. This is tempting but short-sighted, and the Selinger government should avoid cuts to post-secondary education as it makes the final decisions on the financial blueprint for the province.

Investments in post-secondary education are critical to our province's future because they address the full breadth of the government's strategic priorities. Through teaching and research, we help improve our health care system. Education enables the transition out of poverty. Our researchers confront environmental challenges, such as water quality and climate change. We are at the heart of Winnipeg's arts community.

While we are proud of the role we play in Manitoba's success, we know we could do more. There are many possible examples of how fiscal issues constrain our ability to serve our province and country. For the purposes of this discussion, I will narrow it to one current challenge we are facing.

Graduate students are an important part of the intellectual engine of Manitoba. They work with their research supervisors to drive innovation and challenge our assumptions about the critical issues facing society. Thus, an investment in graduate student training is an investment in job creation and in building Manitoba's knowledge economy.

The unfortunate truth is that nearly half of the outstanding young graduate students we accept at the University of Manitoba seek out other opportunities for financial reasons. Imagine the possibilities if we were able to double the number of individuals working on exciting projects that improve our quality of life, spark innovation and challenge us to think differently.

This is but one of the strategic priorities in which we need to invest that provides benefits beyond our university campus, enriching our community, province and country. We will be unable, however, to make those strategic investments if the government cuts funding to post-secondary education.

Our province is at a tipping point. The true Manitoba advantage is our people and we must take advantage of this tremendous natural resource.

We have achieved significant momentum together. This is a time to continue moving forward.


David T. Barnard, PhD, is president and vice-chancellor of the University of Manitoba.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 9, 2013 A9

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