Manitoba explores U.S.-style university funding
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Manitoba appears set to radically change the way universities and colleges are funded, by switching to a popular model in the U.S. that requires schools to report achievement data and meet specific goals in exchange for operating dollars.
Consultations about “performance benchmarks” remain underway, but school leaders, faculty members and student groups are again raising concerns about the Tory government’s plan to update traditional lump-sum funding.
“Developing and implementing a set of performance benchmarks is intended to ensure greater financial oversight and accountability for public funding,” states an excerpt from a consultation guide recently put out by the advanced education department.
The guide, sent to stakeholders in late September, details how the province is collecting feedback to create its so-called post-secondary accountability framework. Data on student admission and progression, graduate outcomes, and institutional efficiency and effectiveness are all under consideration as the province searches for metrics to measure.
The Progressive Conservatives have long touted the importance of improving oversight of taxpayer dollars on post-secondary programs and tailoring courses to more closely meet workforce needs.
The contents of a 2017 KPMG review and 2020 report from the auditor general — both of which critique a lack of provincial post-secondary supervision — are repeatedly cited as reasons to modernize the system.
Consultations on how the province should achieve its goals began in the spring.
In response to a June 17 meeting, the University of Manitoba’s leader penned a letter outlining extensive reporting and accountability measures already in place.
President Michael Benarroch requested the province refrain from tying funding to data because he said it is not necessary to motivate schools to make progress. “Tied funding generates unintended consequences; making progress on specific metrics for example can come at a cost to other priorities, such as accessibility,” he wrote in the Aug. 2 letter.
Benarroch noted statistics such as graduate employment and earnings are out of a school’s control. He indicated a successful framework will rely on the government communicating a “clear vision and objectives” for the post-secondary system.
Former premier Brian Pallister expressed an interest in adapting Tennessee’s approach; the state’s funding formula takes into account how many research dollars an institution brings in annually and the number of credits and degrees obtained in any given year, among other line items.
The Manitoba Organization of Faculty Associations — composed of about 1,600 academics from the U of M, University of Winnipeg, Brandon University and Université de Saint-Boniface — is a vocal opponent of the U.S. model.
“We don’t object to more oversight at all. In fact, we think more financial transparency would be a good thing. Where the argument falls down is (accountability) doesn’t rest upon performance-based funding. That’s a non-sequitur,” said MOFA president Scott Forbes.
As far as Forbes is concerned, the province already has the ability to inspect finances because it can appoint the majority of a school’s board of governors, the body that oversees financial accounts.
Forbes said study after study on the outcomes-based model suggest it does not improve graduation rates.
At the same time, it incentivizes grade inflation and encourages schools to spend the least amount of money possible to get a student through the system, in turn raising barriers to applicants in marginalized groups, he said.
“When the government of Manitoba proposes their plans for (performance-based funding) as an ‘accountability effort,’ this is their code for cutting funds,” said Marie Paule Ehoussou, chairwoman of the Canadian Federation of Students’ Manitoba chapter. “One only has to look at the government’s track record.”
The formula will inevitably set up differentiated tuition and result in higher fees for arts and humanities degrees, Ehoussou added in an email statement.
The U of M Students’ Union has voiced similar concerns and expressed frustration the province seems to have made up its mind despite ongoing consultations.
UMSU president Jaron Rykiss said institutions and learners alike would only benefit if the province created a performance-based system that was tied to bonus funding rather than operational money.
“The consultation that they invited us to over the summer felt more like a presentation… It seems very, very obvious – at least to us, that the province is looking to go forward with this whether people like it or not,” Rykiss said.
Advanced Education Minister Jon Reyes was not available for an interview Thursday due to a busy schedule on the last day of the current legislative session, his press secretary said.
Last month, when asked repeatedly if he supports performance-based funding by the NDP’s post-secondary education critic, Reyes said no funding decisions have been made.
“This is an accountability framework exercise, and we’re looking to develop accountability framework metrics that will satisfy everyone involved and, most importantly, for the Manitoba taxpayer,” Reyes said on Oct. 6.
“This is an accountability framework exercise, and we’re looking to develop accountability framework metrics that will satisfy everyone involved and, most importantly, for the Manitoba taxpayer.”–Advanced Education Minister Jon Reyes
NDP MLA Jamie Moses responded by saying students should be the main priority in building a new framework.
During a phone call Thursday, the Tennessee Higher Education Commission’s chief policy officer said what works for his state may not work for another jurisdiction.
The commission made that clear to Manitoba when it gave officials a presentation two and a half years ago, said Steven Gentile.
Gentile, however, stands by the model in Tennessee as an effective one in his state and said criticism of it illustrate the need for continuous improvement.
“This helps everyone, from the state down to the administration at institutions and faculty and staff to understand what the (post-secondary completion) goal is,” he said.
Updated on Friday, November 4, 2022 8:18 AM CDT: Corrects reference to MOFA president Scott Forbes