Students critical of response to provincial mandate letter

Letter suggests university funding will reflect labour market demands

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A preliminary draft of the U of M’s answer to a provincial shift in its direction is “toothless,” according to students who are pressuring for a stronger response.

The mandate letter, issued in January, outlines the provincial government’s strategic direction and expectations for Manitoba’s publicly-funded universities.

The letter suggests programs must more closely align with labour market demands and that future funding will be contingent on successful student outcomes based on a to-be-determined measurement.

“Success can mean different things, including employment upon graduation or layering credentials but ultimately students will be putting the skills they gained to work and meeting a labour market need,” reads the letter.

A draft of the university’s official response — which will be discussed when the senate meets Feb. 5 — highlights the school’s social and economic contributions.

The university is a “complex institution, one that does much more than simply train students for today’s labour market,” reads the draft.

“Higher education has social, as well as individual, benefits. We provide a public good that helps to promote wisdom and to build a just, inclusive and prosperous province for all people.”

Julia Minarik, a UMGSA senator, said the response does not push back hard enough and that students will call for stronger language.

“What the government is doing, unfortunately, undervalues knowledge for the sake of knowledge,” said Minarik.

“They’re not accounting for all of the other benefits that institutions of higher education have for Manitoban society.

“A lot of students — particularly in the arts and in research fields — are fairly unhappy about that and we don’t think that the letter adequately captures our frustrations.”

Critics of the direction the province is taking post-secondary education argue it represents a narrow vision for the university.

UMSU president Jakob Sanderson said the university plays a critical role as an educational institution and that “I don’t think we’re just a feeding ground for industry.”

“I was sitting on the presidential search committee last time and we certainly didn’t request to have an interview with KPMG to run our university,” he said.

He said the university community should be gravely concerned about the direction the province wants to take the university and that students should be free to study any field they wish.

“We’re not here just to train people for the job market,” he said. “We’re here to enrich people’s knowledge. We’re here to be an access point for students across the province.”

The mandate letter outlines the province’s plan to facilitate greater dialogue between post-secondary institutions and industry “to ensure programs meet workforce needs and students gain the right skills and competencies to succeed.”

It also says that colleges and universities must be “nimble and responsive,” ceasing programs that lack “value in a modern context and building programs that deliver the skills needed for today and tomorrow.”

Sanderson countered that the university should instead be looking ahead to establishing itself as a leader in Indigenous education and with opening access to marginalized students.

“I think it’s fantastic that students are able to use the University of Manitoba as a springboard into the private sector, but I don’t think that’s the only thing we should be looking at,” he said.

“I don’t think that that’s the right picture of what a university’s role to play in the province and in the country is.”