Unprecedented enrolment and wait-lists have prompted academics to pan the province’s request that post-secondary schools create blueprints to reduce staffing costs.
Second-year student Kira Lang had always planned to take courses in the spring, a quiet time on campus, compared to autumn and winter semesters. But a sudden surge in registrations has placed Lang, who is studying education at the University of Winnipeg, in a lineup for all three classes she’d hoped to take.
"For one of the courses, I’m number 51 out of 53," she said.
"Most people I know are on wait–lists and they're emailing professors, and professors want to accept them, but they can only accept so many."– University of Winnipeg student Kira Lang
"Most people I know are on wait-lists and they're emailing professors, and professors want to accept them, but they can only accept so many."
According to university administration, spring course enrolment — which opened in mid-April and wraps up May 1 — is expected to double 2019 figures. As of Wednesday afternoon, there were wait-lists in 99 courses, even though extra sections have been added. Students and educators alike cite more time for school work and retooling amid work disruptions owing to COVID-19.
So when the province requested post-secondary schools, among other government-funded entities, provide 10, 20 and 30 per cent staff reduction plans for a period of four months ending on Aug. 31, university communities voiced their concerns. Critics demand the province reverse its strategy to make cuts to redirect to health-care and instead, borrow.
Brandon Christopher, chair of the U of W’s English department, called the province’s ask "baffling" during a time when there is more demand for courses than ever before. In his department, all six upper-year offerings are full and there’s a wait-list for every course that can have one.
As with in-person English classes, online courses in the department have caps between 35 and 48, depending on level and class. While the physical number of seats available may not be a concern in an online lecture, instructors still have to mark assignments and communicate with students.
"We're told the priority is front-line medical workers and absolutely, it should be — but we have to think about what we’re taking from the future in order to deal with what’s basically an ideological position that the premier refuses to borrow money," Christopher said.
He added that while the province covers a little more than half the price tag of the school’s approximately $110-million annual operating budget, student tuition and fees account for the rest, so their needs should be front and centre.
"Spring courses allow us to feel normal again, to have some normalcy," said Lang, who had planned to take extra courses this term so she could graduate early. "I’m not super tied into anything at the moment. It's boring; there’s nothing really to do and I can’t work."
During a virtual news conference Wednesday, Premier Brian Pallister said there has been a "miscategorization" of what the province is trying to do: determine positions where meaningful work isn’t possible and resources that don’t need to be deployed at present. Those savings, Pallister said, will be redirected to cover the cost of expenses such as protective gear.
Meantime, the Manitoba Organization of Faculty Associations has said even at the lower end of the scale, 10 per cent cuts would cause institution-altering disruptions.
Peter Miller, an assistant professor of classics at U of W, said Wednesday such a cut would inevitably affect course options.
"We're losing capacity at the very moment when we need to increase capacity, and that just seems counter-intuitive to me," said Miller, who is acting chairman of the classics department. "I hope the premier’s right. I hope we have mischaracterized him."
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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