Public education for the public good

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Education is a right. It has become clear that post-secondary education has moved away from the luxury that it once was, to a necessity people need in order to be able to actively participate in today’s workforce and knowledge based economy. Canada has evolved and the job market is looking for more than a high school diploma. However, what hasn’t evolved is the way that provincial governments fund and invest in post-secondary institutions.

With increasing enrolment, program and campus expansion, and growing financial need by Manitoba’s post-secondary institutions, universities and colleges are not being treated as the priority they should be by provincial or federal governments.

During the mid-nineties, the federal government cut approximately $4 billion to post-secondary institutions and left the provinces to make up that gap. This led to the largest student strike in Canadian history because students understood what these cuts would mean for the quality of their education.

Following these cuts, post-secondary institutions were placed in dire circumstances; tuition fees were increasing dramatically — approximately 170 per cent over the decade — student debt was skyrocketing and the University of Winnipeg and Brandon University where under threat of being folded into the University of Manitoba. Students had enough, and called on the Manitoba government to take action. Students were successful and in 1999, the Manitoba government committed to a tuition fee freeze and 10 per cent reduction.

Under the tuition fee freeze, Manitoba post-secondary institutions saw an influx of government funding, universities and colleges were able to dramatically expand, institutions saw enrolment increase nearly 50 per cent in the province, and public student debt is one of the lowest in Canada at $19,000 compared to Canada’s national average at about $26,000.

But all that is set to change, since the Manitoba government has allowed tuition fees to rise by 10 per cent in the last two years, with no sign of slowing.

Students in Manitoba are paying more for their education than ever before. With tuition fees growing father than rent, food, and all other costs faced by students, post-secondary education is being pushed out of reach for many ordinary Manitobans. At a time when a post-secondary education is more necessary than ever before, it is important that the federal and provincial governments take responsibility in ensuring that students in every province have access to a high-quality and affordable education, by increasing funding to post-secondary institutions, reducing tuition fees and reducing student debt. Two tangible ways this can be done is through the adoption of a federal post-secondary education act which will provide a national vision for post-secondary education in Canada as well as shifting the $1.4 billion that is already allocated to ineffective education-related savings schemes and tax credits to up-front student grants. Provincially, the government can continue funding increases to universities and colleges while reinstating strong tuition fee protections for students, such as the successful tuition fee freeze.

It is clear that post-secondary education is a necessity today, however, it is unclear why Canada’s provincial and federal governments are not investing appropriately to meet the growing needs of universities and colleges across Canada. Public education operates for the public good as a public service, however, chronic underfunding has left universities and colleges relying largely on private funds, making them operate more like a business rather than a public service. As a result, the value of basic research is under attack as well as academic integrity in general, and more students are simply falling through the cracks, or ending up with mortgage-sized debt. Most Canadians understand this and recognize that education at the post-secondary level is a right, and not a privilege.

Alanna Makinson is the Manitoba Chairperson for the Canadian Federation of Students.