So, with Saskatchewan’s election out of the way (results unknown at time of writing but I assume it was a Sask Party blowout), it’s time to focus now on the election in next-door Manitoba. This is somewhat difficult because neither the governing NDP nor the opposition Progressive Conservatives have chosen to do anything so mundane as issue platforms, preferring instead to simply issues a bunch of “priorities” or “announcements”. The reason for this is straightforward: the Tories are up 20 points and provided no one catches Brian Pallister drinking blood in public, they will win the province’s biggest majority in over a century. But it can lead to some confusion over what is actually being promised. Like when Greg Selinger pledged to double the number of yurts in the province. He said it, but there’s no corresponding pledge on the party website – so is it a promise, or not?
(Obviously the duty of any social democratic government to rectify the market failure in yurts should be clear; the real question is why it’s taken this government 16.5 years to act on this imperative. I digress).
Enough grumbles: here’s the lowdown.
Over the past sixteen years, the NDP have treated higher education tolerably well. They’ve put a reasonable amount of money into need-based student assistance (introducing a loan remission program in their first year in office). Money to institutions has gone up slightly more than the Canadian average, but much of it was to compensate for a decade-long tuition freeze, so in fact the institutions’ net financial position ended up lagging the rest of the country somewhat.
But in the last few years, Manitoba has been arguably the best government in the country – the only one which has consistently given institutions increases ahead of inflation. That’s pretty good. On the other hand, it has also introduced one of those god-awful graduate tax rebates, with the result that – provided you graduate on time and stay in the province – you’re likely to receive more in grants and tax credits/rebates than you pay in tuition. That’s inane.
The NDP’s initial instinct in PSE always seems to be “how can we hand money to students”? Its election promise to convert the provincial student loan program into a fully grant-based program, as well as spend $4.5 million doubling the funding for the Manitoba Scholarship and Bursary Initiative (MSBI), which is a 1-to-1 top-up for private donations made to institutions for the purpose of establishing scholarships.
The Liberals appear to have made only one pledge in post-secondary education: that is, to match the NDP on converting loans to grants. The Tories also appear to have only one promise, and that is to make two changes to the MSBI – increase it by 50% (that is, 50% more than now, but still $2.25M short of what NDP are promising), but changing the rules so it is not a 1-1 leverage but a 1-2 leverage (i.e. $2 in donations triggers $1 in matching funding). This, apparently, will “leverage more money from the private sector”, which is a stretch if you ask me. None of the parties seems inclined to touch the demonstrably wasteful and ineffective graduate tax rebate.
The NDP have also made two specific commitments to institutions: to fund a $12 million expansion of student family housing at the University of Brandon (I know little about this project but I assume it would be focused specifically on helping aboriginal students) and a $150 million commitment to the University of Manitoba’s “Front and Center” capital campaign, 80% of which is dedicated to infrastructure. And if you find it strange that the government is contributing to a capital campaign, well, that’s Manitoba for you.
What’s distressing here is that – as in Saskatchewan – none of the parties have made any pledges at all with respect to core funding of institutions. Now that might not be disastrous since not one of the parties are looking to implement swingeing cuts (although the left take it for granted that the Tories are lying about only wanting to restrain the rate of growth in government spending), but it does suggest that no one thinks core funding is a priority. And that’s a problem for the whole sector.
Bottom line: if you’re voting on PSE alone, you vote NDP based both on past record and present promises. They spend a lot of money on PSE, even if too much of it is wasteful and ineffective. But the opposition parties don’t appear to put a lot of thought into anything other than how to hand more money to students. And we probably shouldn’t reward parties with such one-dimensional views of higher education.