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Student leaders are questioning the motive behind a bill that would grant the province more power in setting tuition guidelines and student fees.
A Manitoba university or college board currently sets the respective institution’s tuition. Schools also collect fees tied to programs and on behalf of student unions. The latter fund union staff salaries, advocacy work and campus expenses ranging from frosh events to student food banks.
Last month, the Progressive Conservatives introduced Bill 41, which would enable the minister to issue an increase or decrease to tuition and student fees set by a board. If it becomes law, schools who break guidelines could face financial penalties.
The proposed changes to the Advanced Education Administration Act, Colleges Act and Red River College Act also give the minister powers to ban "compulsory student fees."
A provincial spokesperson said the fees only include those set by university and college boards — but students are wary of the broad language.
"What I’m worried about is what happened last year in the province of Ontario with the Student Choice Initiative. It allowed students to opt-out of incidental fees. Essentially, it was an attempt to wipe out student unions," said Meagan Malcolm, president of the University of Winnipeg Students’ Association.
In early 2019, the Doug Ford government issued a directive that allowed students to opt out of paying "non-essential" fees. The Canadian Federation of Students and York Federation of Students won a court challenge on the grounds of the initiative interfering with student union independence. Ontario is currently undertaking an appeal.
Around the same time, the Red River College Students’ Association (RRCSA) decided to create a more clear breakdown of its fees so members were better informed of their purpose. The per semester fee of $52.50 goes towards academic appeal support, building maintenance and emergency bursaries, among other things, said president Josh Roopchand.
Roopchand said the first thing he thought of when he read Bill 41 was the Ford government’s initiative — informally known as "voluntary student unionism." He echoed the same concerns as Malcolm, noting the college collects student union fees, and then transfers the monies to the RRCSA.
In a statement, a provincial spokesperson cited Bill 41 as a move to provide "greater financial certainty" to Manitoba’s post-secondary education system.
"The policy-based approach will be responsive, flexible and fair, and allow guidelines for tuition and student fees to vary depending on factors such as type of institution or programming," the spokesperson wrote.
Meanwhile, Jakob Sanderson with the University of Manitoba Students' Union (UMSU), is encouraged Manitoba won't interfere with local student union operations due to the untouched UMSU Act. However, he said he'd prefer the university set rates rather than the government: "I don’t think the government should start meddling in the academy's affairs. The government is very good at running a government and the university can generally run itself better without the government."
Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.
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