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Weeks after slashing millions in funding for universities and colleges, the province is now reimbursing post-secondary institutes with a $25.6-million fund.
The U-turn comes after weeks of warnings from the province that post-secondary institutes — along with school divisions, Crown corporations and other publicly funded entities — had to find savings to help Manitoba weather the novel coronavirus pandemic and support its front-line response.
On Tuesday, the office of Economic Development and Training Minister Ralph Eichler confirmed the province has created a one-time "transitional support fund" for higher-learning institutions.
In a prepared statement to the Free Press, Eichler wrote colleges and universities will play a critical role in Manitoba’s economic recovery, so it is essential schools can "respond effectively to the new economic and social realities."
"This fund will support a new way forward to achieve success in a new and unknown labour market landscape," Eichler wrote.
The sum is the equivalent of schools’ pandemic-related savings in staffing and operations and a temporary restoration of the one per cent reduction in funding announced in the 2020 budget, combined.
Eichler said the funding will be used to help schools plan for the pandemic’s impact on operations; it will help improve online learning, address enrolment changes related to international students and "align programming to labour market demands."
Plans are expected to be shared with the province by Sept. 15.
University of Winnipeg spokesman Kevin Rosen said in a statement the school is "appreciative" the province is recognizing the importance of post-secondary to Manitoba’s economic recovery with the fund.
University College of the North president Doug Lauvstad echoed those sentiments: "We intend to use available funds to help northerners gain skills and reskill for a post-pandemic economy."
Both the University of Manitoba and Red River College declined interview requests Tuesday; their respective spokespeople said administration is reviewing details before providing public comment. Neither Brandon University nor the University of Saint Boniface provided comment in time for deadline.
In early April, the province first asked colleges and universities to draw up blueprints of workforce-reduction proposals for 10, 20 and 30 per cent cuts.
It later announced lesser reductions, but cuts nonetheless that would have post-secondary institutes and school divisions find approximately $175 million in savings in total. That formula translated into a five per cent reduction ($17.3 million) in the U of M’s operating grant.
Critics have condemned the cuts — at times, with honk-a-thons outside the legislature — in protest, saying the province should be supporting post-secondary institutions as laid-off Manitobans look to retool in the coming months.
Scott Forbes, president of the Manitoba Organization of Faculty Associations, said Tuesday the amount of government interference in post-secondary in recent weeks has been "deeply disturbing."
Forbes said he’s convinced the province is up to two things: cutting funding for higher learning and taking greater control of post-secondary programming. The latter has been clear since the province shuffled the post-secondary portfolio to a ministry whose title doesn’t mention education, he added.
A series of mandate letters sent to post-secondary institutes since the Progressive Conservatives were re-elected last year have addressed the province’s desire for schools to work closer with industry and prepare students for 21st century jobs.
"This portrays a misunderstanding of what universities are supposed to do; it’s much, much more than teaching kids how to use Microsoft Excel for the latest job opening," Forbes said, adding universities teach critical thinking and leadership skills.
"What we’re trying to do is educate students on how they can educate themselves to meet the challenges of new opportunities, which include new careers."
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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Updated on Tuesday, May 26, 2020 at 11:12 PM CDT: Updates story to final version.