As part of its Manitoba Skills Workshop 2021, the Canadian Federation of Students — Manitoba hosted a webinar entitled “Demanding Better: A Progressive Discussion on Education in Manitoba” on Sept. 22.
The webinar featured presentations from the federation’s national deputy chairperson Wesam AbdElhamid Mohamed, provincial federation’s graduate students’ commissioner Dane Monkman and Winnipeg School Division (WSD) trustee Jennifer Chen.
The panel began with a presentation from Chen, in which she discussed the current state of K to 12 education in the province.
Chen began her presentation by remarking on how different it is in Canada, where we have open elections, right down to the level of school boards — as opposed to her experiences in China, where she was born. She then spoke about Bill 64 and what it would mean for democracy in education.
“Bill 64 told us that we should never take democracy for granted,” said Chen.
The controversial Bill 64 was rescinded from the legislature earlier this month after months of pushback from educators, parents and activists. If passed, the legislation would have dissolved the province’s democratically elected school boards and centralized power in the education minister’s office.
Chen then turned to discussing the provincial government’s plan to phase out education property taxes — a move that would see a loss of $900 million in revenues annually if fully implemented.
“We know those decisions come from the provincial government and that these decisions will ultimately undermine our education system,” she said.
“So, what does [a] funding decrease actually mean to working people and families?”
She said the WSD receives less than 60 per cent of its operating funding directly from the province, the remaining 40 per cent coming from property taxes.
That 40 per cent represents funding toward nutrition programs, reading recovery, inclusive education, mental health programs, Indigenous education and newcomer support.
Due to cuts to funding, she also mentioned that the WSD had to cut its crossing guard program.
“I believe funding for education should come from the government and not in the shape of fees,” she said.
Next, Monkman discussed post-secondary education in Manitoba, paying special attention to the provincial government’s strategy to implement what is known popularly as the Tennessee model of education, in which funding of institutions becomes linked to meeting performance standards.
The model “focuses on metrics such as graduation rates and number of degrees awarded,” he said.
The provincial government has “announced four high-level objectives: […] anticipate skills needed for the future, align education and training to labour market needs and help students succeed now and in the future, foster entrepreneurial and innovative skills and grow, attract and retain talent,” he said.
“These four objectives that they’ve identified all fall under a larger issue that we see in policies coming out of this government, which is that they’re all ideological aims of the Conservative government — cutting services, cutting Crown corporations, pushing for small government, smaller budgets and buddying up with industry, aiming to privatize public goods.”
He highlighted the consistent cuts to funding for post-secondary education amid rising tuition — which included ending access to the provincial health-care plan for international students and the Manitoba Tuition Fee Income Tax Rebate, which would have provided a rebate for 60 per cent of tuition after graduation for those who stayed to work in the province.
Monkman referred to the overall approach of the provincial government as “austerity” and “kicking away the ladder.”
Mohamed then presented on post-secondary education across the country, focusing on performance-based funding.
Echoing Monkman, Mohamed defined performance-based funding as tying the funding of post-secondary institutions to performance metrics, however these metrics vary between jurisdictions.
“In Ontario, we see metrics like graduate employment earnings, experiential learning, skills and competencies, graduate employment rate, graduation rate, the economic impact, faculty compensation […] the list, it goes on,” he said.
He explained that since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and New Brunswick have announced plans to transition to performance-based funding for universities, with Ontario delaying the implementation of its plan.
In November 2020, University of Manitoba professors of economics Robert Chernomas and Ian Hudson penned an op-ed in the Winnipeg Free Press denouncing the strategy as one which would create a “red state” type of situation in Manitoba.
Mohamed raised concerns that performance-based funding will reduce the quality of education that students receive, using the example of graduate students being pushed to graduate sooner — even if they do not feel they are ready or their work will stand up — because it would help improve the metrics for the institution.
He also expressed concerns about the casualization of faculty — moving away from tenured professors to contracted instructors — and a shrinking job market for graduates.
He also pointed out that while performance-based funding may result in defunding the arts and humanities, arts graduates tend to earn more in the long run than science graduates.
“We had a very clear stance. We want to see provincial governments suspending current plans to introduce performance-based funding and not tie the public funding to any sort of metrics,” he said.
“With that I’m going to conclude performance-based funding is bad.”