Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Minister envisions U of NDP

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Education Minister James Allum is disingenuous when he insists his Bill 63 seeks merely to ensure Manitoba gets the best from its universities and colleges. Mr. Allum would have Manitobans believe that can be done only if the post-secondary schools fall under the thumb of complete political control.

This is an arrogant, perilous proposition. The new act would usurp the long-standing authority of publicly funded universities and colleges to set their mandates, introduce or close faculties, programs and courses. It makes all other statutes, including the schools' own governing acts, subservient to the proposed advanced education administration act.

It is an intimidating power grab. Mr. Allum says the legislation is intended to build a strong education system in the province while holding the minister ultimately accountable for "what happens in post-secondary education." The province already has ample influence, through its operating grants and its membership on university boards of governors, to do that.

The kindest of interpretations would imply the province wants to exert greater control over post-secondary expenditures, given the pressures upon the treasury. Aggressive fundraising campaigns by schools have built new satellites and campus infrastructure, much of which has been encouraged and funded by the NDP government itself.

It is politically profitable to assist such new developments. But capital funding, heavily supported by alumni and friends, only builds the shell. The new facilities are then filled with teachers, equipment and students, all of which incur new operating expenses that rely upon the public purse.

Provincial governments must protect the treasury from becoming complicit in -- or footing the annual bill for -- unaffordable growth or for unnecessary, unsustainable duplication of academic programs.

Until now, the province exercised limited control by restricting growth in operating grants to post-secondary institutions and leaving negotiations on their budgets to an arm's-length granting body, the Council on Post-Secondary Education. That body is being subsumed into Mr. Allum's department by the same bill.

The independence of the schools is preserved in this relationship through the authority they have, in their own acts, to set tuition fees and other charges. That balancing act was upset in 1999, when the NDP government imposed a long-standing tuition freeze that served to ingratiate it with students and parents but undermined the schools' fiscal resources.

Mr. Allum says the fear about Bill 63 is unfounded. He points out he, a former academic with a PhD, is committed to upholding academic freedom.

He should then explain why the government has written legislation that would deliver it unprecedented power to dictate what courses, programs and buildings post-secondary schools will open, close or operate. The move is a direct challenge to the independence of the institutions and, through the back door, imposes a chill over the academic freedom of its faculty.

If the provincial government's intent is merely to rein in its rising post-secondary costs, it should free colleges and universities from tuition restrictions. Let the market -- the registrants -- signal to those schools the appropriate level of charges, with public student loans, grants and bursaries ensuring access for lower-income students.

It is inappropriate and offensive for a government to give itself the power to micro-manage the programs, purpose and aspirations of schools of higher learning. Putting universities and colleges under unchecked government control subverts public interest to serve a political agenda. Mr. Allum should scrap the bill and rethink the minister's role in supporting higher education.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 2, 2014 A8

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