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Lower fees or better universities?

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The Selinger government has made a very clear and conscious decision to put money back into the pockets of homeowners and students rather than directly into our education institutions.

There are very few parallels between the funding of the public school system and the funding of the postsecondary system. Tuition plays roughly the role of property taxes as the second-greatest source of funding after provincial operating grants, albeit in a lower proportion, but that’s about it.

Though, one must say, both funding systems are complex, convoluted, and confusing.

The provincial funding for universities and colleges pays no attention to per-student funding, which is at the heart of funding the kindergarten to Grade 12 system.

U of M president David Barnard raised numerous questions in our interview Wednesday over tuition here being so far below the national average, third-lowest in the country, and why the province concentrates on reducing students’ costs, to the detriment of the institutions.

This is a chaotic time for universities across Canada, and let’s be clear, even though the province reneged on its three-year commitment to increase operating grants five per cent a year, it still increased grants by 2.5 per cent.

I read Academica Top Ten every day, the postsecondary news roundup out of LondonOnt. Governments are playing hardball with universities, and the impact in particular on Alberta universities of that province’s deep funding reductions is pretty near cataclysmic for job and program cuts. Just today, Academica Top Ten reported that the tiny University of Prince Edward Island has to lay off 35 people and reduce its budget nine per cent because of provincial funding reductions. U of M’s cuts amounted to about 0.8 per cent.

But back to our main topic, and my never-ending quest to force even the eyes of the Manitoba chapter of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation to glaze over.

The K-12 system has an annual operating budget of $2.026 billion. But — and you knew there were to be many ‘buts’ — tens of millions of dollars never go into a classroom.

Start with the education property tax credit, which, before 2006, was simply a property tax credit paid out of general revenues that took a few hundred dollars off the bottom of your property tax bill. Go to page 42 of the FRAME (Financial Reporting and Accounting in Manitoba Education) gripping page-turner of a read, and you’ll see that the education property tax credit is $192.6 million.

But, not a penny of that money goes into a classroom. Though the government has labelled it education funding, all that money comes off the bottom of your property tax bill.

FRAME also lists $35.6 million as the farmland tax rebate and $1.5 million as pensioners’ tax assistance. And someday soon we’ll be adding the elimination of education property taxes for seniors.

Those last three represent money that does go into the public school system, but the province has decided that it will dig into general revenues for $37.1 million to put the cash back into people’s pockets. That’s reimbursing certain taxpayers, instead of taking that $37.1 million the government can apparently spare from general revenues and increasing the revenue available to run the public school system. Sure, taxpayers of various kinds would be left holding the bag, but the money would theoretically improve the quality of education.

OK, now let’s switch to the postsecondary system and specifically to universities. Is anyone still awake out there? No? Not even Colin Craig?

I don’t expect that the Tory education and advanced education critics are still with us, because their alternative policies are "NDP bad, NDP really bad", with no constructive and/or creative solutions offered that we’ve heard so far.

But I digress.

The provincial government will provide $480 million as university operating grants in 2013-2014, of which $325 million goes to U of M. Hardly chump change.

Statistics Canada and the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada list extensive data which show that the average Manitoba undergraduate student with a maximum course load pays just about $2,000 less per year in tuition fees than does the average Canadian university student.

Tuition, as everyone still with us surely knows, is based on the courses taken, not on how many bodies are on a campus.

So let’s be conservative here — pause while right wing ideologues among regular readers make snide remarks — and say that there are 30,000 fulltime equivalent students with maximum course loads at U of M, U of W, and BrandonU. That would be another $60 million a year in revenue available to run the universities.

Now keep in mind that the Selinger government has a very generous graduate retention tax rebate paid to grads who stay in Manitoba after university, that’s capped with percentages and dollars but is still pretty generous in further reducing the impact of tuition fees that are also very low. Last year, the province ponied up $25.5 million.

By now, they’re having conniptions over at the Canadian Federation of Students, which wants free tuition and is undoubtedly horror-stricken at where I’m going. But I’ll carry on.

Further keep in mind that the province also allows Manitoba students currently in university — including those from here who go to university outside the province — to claim an advance on that rebate each year while they’re still in school. It’s capped, of course, but the provincial budget says that will pay out at least $4 million this coming tax year.

Those dollars are piling up, eh, and nary a penny of it going into the operation of the schools.

But wait, there’s more.

Remember a few years ago when the province had frozen tuition at 1999 levels, and those dastardly universities had tried to use a back door to raise some serious coin by increasing ancillary fees? Those are fees levied on students for bus passes, using the gym, for libraries, to run the bookstore, to support student radio, parking, all sorts of things. The province kiboshed additional ancillary fees and told the universities to knock it off.

And then there’ve been the attempts by professional schools at U of M and a couple at U of W to get exempted from tuition controls, and be allowed to raise their fees to somewhere near the national averages. The province has allowed a couple, but only one or two.

Bottom line, there’s a lot of money out there that could be going into operating the universities.

The elephant in the room is the cost to students, accessibility, and the financial ability of low-income students to attend university.

I know I’m taxing your memories — why not, everything else in Manitoba is taxed, bad-da-boom — but remember back when the province not only froze tuition at 1999 levels, but further reduced students’ tuition fees by 10 per cent? That’s been phased out as the province allowed tuition rates to rise at the level of the CPI. Back then, I raised the issue of taking that money, which cost the province about $15 million a year, and gearing it to income. That wouldn’t be equitable, retorted the NDP, so all students saw their tuiton cut by about $300 a year, regardless they were single mothers from the North End, or the daughter of senior professionals living on Wellington Crescent.

Back then, I reckoned that the 10 per cent reduction money would provide full tuition for the better part of 4,500 to 5,000 students a year, if it was geared to income.

I’m not saying that tuitions should skyrocket, or that all the money being dangled as an incentive to stay here after graduation should go to the universities. Any changes to tuition and money going to the schools should include a condition that a certain amount goes towards scholarships and bursaries, an idea that’s hardly original with me. As I recall, the professional schools made their pitch with a condition that part of the increase would go to student financial aid for those students who would qualify academically but not have the money to enrol.

But just as we need to recognize that the quality of education in the K-12 system is based on the assessed value of properties within defined geographical boundaries, we need to recognize that the quality of education in our universities varies on how government balances institutional health and students’ costs.

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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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