Making it rain in Manitoba An analysis of the province’s post-secondary funding commitments

Last month saw a flurry of announcements from both the province and the University of Manitoba concerning funding for post-secondary education. For students who have been hearing about nothing but austerity and cuts for almost two years, this might seem like a bewildering shift of direction.

Should students still be concerned about cuts? Has there been a sea change in education policy? Will hundreds of millions in cash even fit into a swimming pool? It might be premature to pose these questions. After all, it’s an election year.

$150 million for Front and Centre: a guide for the perplexed

It’s important to stress that none of this money has actually been given to any universities and colleges yet. The announcements represent promises for the future. The more short-term announcements concern the 2016-17 budget, which will not be released till after the election. The long-term commitments should be taken with a grain of salt even if the NDP wins another term – if they lose, of course, all bets are off.

The press releases put out by the province and the university gloss over the fact that certain provincial commitments have been promiscuously re-announced in order to keep them in the public’s memory.

January’s announcements included $30 million for indigenous education, research excellence, and graduate student support. This money will mainly be used for scholarships, bursaries, and research chairs – it will also support an indigenous success fund and the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.

Another announcement was $120 million for buildings and renovations at the U of M. Most of this will go to the proposed Inter-Professional Health Education Complex at the Bannatyne campus, while the remainder will be used for upgrades to libraries, labs, and classrooms and the retrofitting of the Helen Glass Centre.

These two figures add up to $150 million – a number that may be familiar as the province’s highly touted contribution to the university’s Front and Centre campaign. This contribution was announced in October and confirmed in November’s throne speech. January was the third time the province announced this funding – only this time they announced it in two instalments and with great fanfare, giving the impression that it was a new commitment instead of more detail on an old one.

The province also announced a figure of $27.9 million – the money they are devoting to post-secondary education in the coming year. This sum includes $1 million for the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation and $3 million for graduate student scholarships and bursaries at U of M – both of which also fall under the heading of the $150-million Front and Centre contribution.

The figure of $150 million is misleading, since the Front and Centre money will not appear as a lump sum – it’s not that kind of commitment. In the event that the NDP wins the election in April, the money will be paid toward specific projects over the course of seven years, subject to approval in each year’s provincial budget.

What has been branded as a $150-million donation is actually a more modest deal for an annual contribution to the U of M’s strategic and capital projects over several years. This is all well and good – some of the projects, such as a boost to the U of M’s scholarship and bursary funds for graduate students, are sorely needed. Others are well-thought-out and forward-thinking proposals, such as the various research chairs and the indigenous success fund.

However, smoke and mirrors always make one suspicious. We’re seeing the same funding commitments being continually repackaged in different guises to keep two key branding points in the public eye: first, that Manitoba’s NDP government is committed to post-secondary education, and second, that the U of M’s star is on the rise.

The NDP’s ill-fated 2011 commitment to major operating grant increases is an instructive comparison. Though they are currently being lauded for their 2.5-per cent increase to university operating grants, they campaigned in the last election on a promise of grant increases of five per cent annually for three years.

They followed through on this increase in 2011-12 and 2012-13 before pulling back in the 2013 budget. The increase has been 2.5 per cent each year since then, and the U of M has blamed its budget troubles on this low annual increase coupled with low tuition.

The Front and Centre contribution is a larger commitment over a longer period of time than last election’s promise. A lot can happen in seven years, and it strains credulity to think that this agreement will survive fully intact for such a long time.

Budget outlooks

We reached out to John Danakas, the U of M’s spokesperson and executive director of public affairs, to ask whether these promises of more funding will have any effect on the university’s budget outlook for the coming year.

The university made controversial across-the-board budget cuts last year, and stated their intention to do the same in the 2016-17 budget. They cited a lack of income due to low tuition and insufficient operating funding from the province.

Critics of the cuts, such as the University of Manitoba Faculty Association, argue that the budget shortfall was a result of the university’s practice of transferring money from the operating fund for capital projects.

Danakas clarified that the Front and Centre money will largely not affect the university’s operating costs, stressing that the commitments from government and private donors are one-time only.

“The university’s challenges with operating funding in the past number of years and the immediate future are because of the difference between rising costs of operating the university [and its funding and revenues], and the number-one cost of operating the university is salaries,” Danakas said.

“A campaign like Front and Centre certainly enhances the university’s ability financially to deliver on its mandate. But it’s usually not baseline funding. It’s usually not salary funding. In fact, it’s almost never, except in the case of chairs.”

The details of the U of M’s budget, including the final word on any cuts, will have to wait until after the election and the provincial budget.

Feature image: CFS-MB Aboriginal commissioner Jaron Hart and Manitoba education minister James Allum at one of many January press conferences on post-secondary education. Photo by Estefania Wujkiw for the Manitoban.

Update: This article has been updated to clarify the wording of the quote in the third paragraph from the end.

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