For PCs, it’s the money that matters

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IT’S Money That Matters is the title of a Randy Newman song that is a lament to the ills of modern American society. It could also serve as a tidy summary of the philosophy of the current Manitoba government.

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Opinion

IT’S Money That Matters is the title of a Randy Newman song that is a lament to the ills of modern American society. It could also serve as a tidy summary of the philosophy of the current Manitoba government.

From day one, the Pallister/Stefanson Progressive Conservatives have behaved like corporate raiders, stripping assets from Manitoba’s public sector. Sell off public goods; privatize what you can (parks; health care); and defund the rest. This has left our health-care system in shambles, education floundering. It delivers rewards mainly to the wealthy as big tax cuts.

Corporate raider turned Trump economic adviser Carl Icahn would be proud.

And what’s left of the public sector afterward? It is repurposed to serve the interests of business and industry. It’s money that matters, evidently not the health and welfare of the people.

Part of this strategy of vulture capitalism was announced by Brian Pallister in 2020: universities were to become handmaidens of government economic policy. The Nov. 15 Free Press editorial (Post-secondary funding model must evolve) explains nicely why this is a very bad idea.

One element was Bill 33, allowing the minister of advanced education to assign differential tuition fees and direct students into government-approved programs.

Another part of the Tory plan was performance funding, a policy plagiarized from their Republican counterparts south of the border. Under it, public funding would be tied to metrics such as graduation rates and post-graduate incomes.

Despite the fact that extensive research shows it doesn’t actually improve performance, and that Manitoba university graduates already earn more than any other segment of society, the Manitoba government pushed ahead.

That is – it seems – until last week’s throne speech. Premier Heather Stefanson, when asked by a reporter about performance funding, said, “We’re stepping back from that.” But she also said she favours performance measures — except, of course, when negotiating health-care funding from the federal government; then, performance funding is a deal-breaker.

Last Wednesday, staff from advanced education, responding to a query from the Manitoba Organization of Faculty Associations, said they would proceed with planned consultations over performance funding. If the government policy had changed, they certainly weren’t letting on.

So is performance funding for higher education on or off the table? Here’s why it should be off:

The American experience shows — to no one’s surprise — that university administrators are very clever people. They respond to performance metrics by gaming the system.

You want higher graduation rates? They can do that. By restricting access to only those students who were most likely to graduate in the first place. They come disproportionately from high income families.

How do we get this so-called improvement? By raising entrance standards and diverting funds from grants and bursaries intended for low-income students and turning them into academic scholarships.

These steps reduce access to higher education, but for this government, that’s more of a feature than a design flaw.

Under performance-based funding, more often than not, the student population becomes whiter and wealthier. It generates the appearance of better graduation rates without actually improving anything.

And it transforms higher education from what it should be – a ladder of social mobility – into something it shouldn’t: a system to maintain or even worsen existing social inequality.

Tying public funding to post-graduate income can also be gamed by administrators. You want high-income graduates? They can do that, too. By increasing enrolment in high-income professions while scaling back enrolment elsewhere. they get more corporate lawyers and petroleum engineers, fewer teachers and nurses.

The message to students couldn’t be clearer: when choosing your program of study, it’s money that matters, whatever you do.

Some, like the premier, are laser-focused on economic rewards. But for the rest of us, life is more than just the size of one’s bank account.

You may find enjoyment and satisfaction in working with children, or helping others. You may be a rural student who wishes to remain in your community, but the salary might not be as high as in the big city.

Your government says these are poor decisions. Because it’s money that matters.

Performance-based funding compromises other public benefits of higher education. Achieving the goals of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission won’t happen without education reforms.

One key recommendation is to erase educational gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students in one generation. That means providing cultural and academic supports for students navigating a novel learning environment; providing new programs in Indigenous languages, culture and governance; and changing institutional norms.

None of these is cheap or easy. And this important task is made so much harder by performance-based funding that raises barriers to traditionally marginalized groups.

The premier struggles in the polls largely because her government fails to reflect the values of most Manitobans. While economic interests are important, it’s a matter of balance. This government is conspicuous in serving the interests of the wealthy at the expense of everyone else.

And that is why this government currently appears to be headed for electoral oblivion. Because it’s more than just the money that matters.

Scott Forbes is president of the Manitoba Organization of Faculty Associations.

History

Updated on Tuesday, November 22, 2022 7:10 AM CST: Fixes typos

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