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The unspoken can be mighty scary

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What Advanced Education Minister Erin Selby didn’t say is pretty scary.

For those given to speculation and conspiracy theories, it could suggest the Selinger government may be reneging on its funding promise to universities and colleges.

A week after Alberta backtracked on its commitment to universities, Selby refused repeatedly this week to confirm that the province would carry out its promise to increase grants five per cent next school year and to cap tuition increases at cost of living.

That’s not a good thing, if you’re a postsecondary institution, or one of its students or professors.

"You’ll have to wait and see the budget on April 16," Selby said repeatedly in an interview at an event at the University of Manitoba.

Reminded several times — by a scurrilous ink-stained wretch infamous for remembering what governments promised they’d do — that this will be the third year of a three-year funding commitment, Selby had the same answer each time: "Our commitment is to make sure our universities and colleges are well-funded, and are affordable," she said.

The easiest thing in the world for Selby to do, if she wanted to prevent yellow journalists sensationalizing the story and cranking out lurid headlines designed to spread panic among the PhDs, would be to simply say, "We made a promise and we keep our promises, the postsecondary budget will be exactly the same as last year and the year before."

But she didn’t do that, repeatedly.

Universities have been preparing their budgets for next September based on receiving five per cent increases in government operating grants, and on having tuition topped at about 1.5 per cent.

Last week, the on-line news gathering site Academica’s Top Ten reported, Alberta reversed its promise of multi-year funding. Instead of a two per cent increase, Alberta universities face cuts that amount to almost nine per cent overall less in grants than they expected. And the Alberta government has said that Alberta schools will not be able to make up the shortfall through higher tuition fees.

OK, so that’s Alberta, not Manitoba, and Alberta has budget problems and deficit problems, and has been warning of doom and gloom and economic struggles and hard times, so what happens in Alberta couldn’t happen in Manitoba unless conditions here were similar...

To use an academic term, yikes.

Brandon University president Deborah Poff said she was at a national meeting of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada in Vancouver when Alberta reneged.

"People were quite rattled," Poff said. "We put our budget together on the commitment the government made. They haven’t said, ‘Prepare for us to change our minds,’ " Poff said. "This (budget) is probably really challenging for them."

And even if the province keeps its promise in this budget, "I have no idea what they’ll do going forward," Poff said.

"I’m waiting for the budget too," U of M president David Barnard said Monday. "I am aware of the pressures the government is under."

And just because the schools are so sensitive, I should mention that U of W said that it would decline to speculate what the government might do.

But, again...yikes.

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About Nick Martin

Nick Martin is the old bearded guy at the back of the newsroom, the most experienced reporter at the Winnipeg Free Press, having started his career in Ontario in 1971.

He’s been covering education for the Free Press since the spring of 1997, after decades primarily covering municipal politics, including a four-year stint at the Ontario legislature for the London Free Press.

Nick moved to Manitoba in 1988 with his Winnipeg-born wife, who is a professor at the University of Manitoba. They have two kids, both of whom graduated from Grant Park High School: son Chris and daughter Gillian.

Nick has won a national journalism award from the Canadian Association of University Teachers, two Manitoba Human Rights Journalism awards, and the Ontario Reporters Association investigative award.

Nick is a long-distance runner, having finished and survived 18 marathons and 15 half-marathons and 30-kilometre races, and having (barely) survived 10 years as an outdoor and indoor soccer coach.

Nick became a soccer referee in 2007, delighting in his 60s in outrunning 16-year-olds and keeping his distance from obstreperous coaches and parents.

Nick and his wife have discovered a mutual love for kayaking at their Whiteshell cottage, and are both regulars at the Reh-Fit Centre. They hold season tickets to both the Manitoba Theatre Centre and the Warehouse, and as empty nesters, have rediscovered the joys of an active winter vacation.

A native of Jarrow-on-Tyne, England, Nick is a member of the Toon Army as a Newcastle United supporter, and a proud citizen of Leafs Nation.

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