The University of Manitoba Faculty Association (UMFA) is speaking out against expected tuition increases after the provincial government introduced legislation relaxing a cap on fee hikes in March, arguing that higher costs will put university out of reach for many families.
The Progressive Conservative government introduced a bill to amend legislation put in place by the NDP in 2012 tying tuition increases to inflation. The amendment allows for tuition increases as high as five per cent above inflation annually.
“That doesn’t sound like a whole bunch of money for somebody that’s looking at it with a steady job and a salary, but it’s not the reality for a lot of students [and] it’s not the reality for a lot of Manitoba families,” said Mark Hudson, UMFA president.
Tuition increases have been tied to inflation for five years, following more than a decade-long freeze. For the 2016-17 academic year, tuition increased by 1.2 per cent.
Hudson also noted that the legislation appears to loosen controls on increases to course-related costs, such as lab fees.
He said the uncertainty of course-related fees, coupled with the possibility of a 20 per cent tuition increase over the term of a four-year degree, leaves students charting their academic path in the dark.
“That’s a huge question mark for students and for families who are planning,” he said.
Any increases under the amendments will not come into effect until the 2018-19 academic year. The University of Manitoba has signaled that it plans to raise tuition to bring its rates in line with other similar universities.
Hudson added that the amendments show the provincial government undervalues the public good post-secondary education represents, noting that public funds once accounted for as much as 80 per cent of university budgets.
“That was a reflection of the fact that post-secondary education actually had the public good component to it,” he said.
“It’s not just about students investing so that they can get a higher income later on – there’s actually a really significant public good.”
Hudson was also critical of the government’s public comments that post-secondary education should be more tightly aligned with the needs of the private sector.
Minister of education and training Ian Wishart has said that the government is aiming to foster tighter links between universities and private businesses, in part to ensure that university programming helps answer the market’s needs and so graduates have jobs to step into when their studies are complete.
The government introduced changes to the Manitoba Scholarship and Bursary Initiative in the fall that it says will increase the program to $20 million in part by pursuing greater private investment.
“It is a fundamental mischaracterization of what a university is,” said Hudson.
“Universities have a role in preparing people for work, but that’s not the be-all and end-all by any means of what a university is supposed to do. It’s an institution of knowledge creation and to reduce a university to some kind of a job training mechanism is really fundamentally to misunderstand what a university is and does.”
UMFA – which represents 1,200 professors, librarians, and instructors – and the University of Manitoba are preparing to negotiate a new collective agreement after the most recent contract expired March 31.
The latest round of bargaining comes less than six months after the two sides settled on a short-term, one-year deal in November to bring to an end a strike that interrupted classes for three weeks in the fall. The strike followed more than seven months of negotiations.
Hudson said the union is meeting with members and holding consultations to establish the priorities the faculty intends to take to the bargaining table. However, he acknowledged that Bill 28, legislation introduced last month instituting a two-year public sector wage freeze, is limiting.
“We’re pretty constrained on that front right now,” he said.
“Compensation looks like it’s off the table again, given Bill 28 [the public services sustainability act], and so we have to figure out what other things might we have some flexibility to bargain with.”
The two sides have held one preliminary meeting toward a new agreement.
University of Manitoba executive director of public affairs John Danakas said the university is seeking ways to expedite bargaining and avoid another labour disruption.
The agreement reached in November included gains for UMFA surrounding teaching workload assignments, the use of metrics to assess faculty performance, and job protections.
However, it did not include salary increases after the provincial government directed the university to extend the existing terms an additional year more than six months into negotiations.
UMFA filed a complaint with the Manitoba Labour Board claiming the university failed to bargain in good faith after a four-year proposal that included a seven per cent increase was withdrawn. The case went before the board in March.
The union also filed a complaint that the university’s introduction of two voluntary days-off programs without first consulting with UMFA went against the collective agreement.
That case went before the labour board in late February.
Decisions on the two cases have yet to be issued.