Amid mounting pressure from university students and faculty, the provincial government said it would amend a proposed law to ensure it won't affect student union fees and services.
Over the last month, critics have called on the province to withdraw Bill 33, the Advanced Education Administration Amendment Act, which would allow the government to issue guidelines on tuition and fees set by a university board.
The Canadian Federation of Students, Manitoba Alliance of Post-Secondary Students and Manitoba Organization of Faculty Associations argue that, if enacted as is, the bill could give the province power to dictate what dues student unions collect. These fees, which are decided upon in campus elections, fund everything from university food banks to student union executive salaries, advocacy campaigns to university newspapers.
The government will amend the bill to explicitly exclude those fees when it enters the committee stage next week, Advanced Education Minister Wayne Ewasko said Friday.
The change is being made, "in order to bring even more clarity to the bill to basically spell it out that this bill does not impact student union or association fees set through their own democratic process," he said.
Brenden Gali, chairperson of the Manitoba chapter of the federation of students, welcomed the amendment Friday.
At the same time, Gali said questions remain about what student associations will be protected — only the University of Manitoba Students’ Union is defined as a student union under provincial legislation — and what fees are at stake.
Course-related fees, library fees and registration fees are among those that will be subject to the department’s guidelines under Bill 33, Ewasko told the Free Press. The intent behind the legislation is to provide a "shoulder-check" to prevent institutions from increasing fees so post-secondary remains affordable, the minister added.
Scott Forbes, president of the Manitoba Organization of Faculty Associations, said what the province says and does are "in total opposite directions."
If the province wants to increase the number of post-secondary graduates and keep university affordable, it should not slash operating budgets, Forbes said, noting grants will decrease by $8.7 million this year, per the 2021 budget.
As for the amendment announcement, he said it does not address his association’s concerns about "deep interference" into university operations, since the bill gives the minister power to set different tuition classes that apply to different subjects.
"We’re going to make sure that our post-secondary education here in Manitoba remains very affordable for students, but at the same time we have to make sure our programming is strong," Ewasko told the Free Press Friday.
The NDP critic on the advanced education file said the province’s plan for post-secondary are "eerily similar" to its plans for K-12 education.
"We’re seeing funding cuts and a parallel between the centralization of power (in Bill 33 and Bill 64)," said Jamie Moses.
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.