HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

Tag Archives: Manitoba

February 02

Manitoba’s Golden Opportunity

It’s tough to be in government these days: prolonged slow growth means it’s difficult to keep increasing spending at a rate at which citizens have become accustomed.  Instead, with rising costs and little appetite to raise taxes or fees, governing often seems to be one long exercise in nickel-and-diming.  Higher education – in most of Canada at least – has felt some of this, but in truth has been insulated more than most other parts of the public service.

But the key role of government should not simply be to find ways to cut: it should be about increasing the effectiveness of public expenditures.  And in particular, making sure public expenditures are designed in such a way as to promote and not hinder growth.  That’s why, if there was one place in Canada I wish I could be an Advanced Education Minister right now, it’s Manitoba.  Because, as I explain in a new paper HESA is releasing today, Manitoba has a boatload of poorly-performing expenditures in higher education tax credits that could be re-purposed into areas which could really help the province.

Here’s the scoop: Manitoba has two tax credits – the Education Amount Tax Credit and the Tuition Fee Income Tax Rebate – which are neither particularly effective nor have many defenders within the higher education sector.  The former tax credit is a hold-over from the Diefenbaker era which all provinces (except Quebec) got stuck with in their portfolios when the provinces moved from a tax-on-tax to a tax-on-income system back in 2000.  In the past 12 months, the federal government, the province of Ontario and the Government of New Brunswick have all eliminated this tax credit because it was neither progressive nor efficient, and funneled that money back to student assistance.  The latter tax credit is effectively a tuition rebate for students who stay in the province, which is batty and wasteful for number of reasons I’ve previously outlined here. In any case, it is demonstrably too small to achieve its intended goal of convincing students who would otherwise not live in the province to live in the province.  The result is this money is a windfall gain to graduates, paying them to do something they were going to do anyways.  The elimination of these two tax measures could yield approximately $67 million per year in savings which could be spent more productively elsewhere within the higher education sector.

$67 million is a lot in Manitoba higher education.  Taking that money away from unproductive tax credits could fund a whole lot of new, useful investments.  These include:

  • Adding $14 million/year to provincial student assistance fund.  Spent correctly, this would be  enough to fund an Ontario-like “free tuition” guarantee to low- and middle-class Manitobans even if tuition fees were allowed to rise by a third (which, given how low tuition is in Manitoba, is probably a not a bad idea).
  • Investing $12 million/year to increasing supports to Indigenous students and expanding community delivery of programming in or near First Nations communities
  • Supporting the expansion of work-integrated learning at Manitoba universities and colleges with the creation of a dedicated $15 million/year fund.
  • Redressing a long-standing imbalance in post-secondary spending by increasing the number of seats in non-Metro Manitoba with a $15 million/year investment.
  • Creating an $11 million/year employer-driven “quick response training fund” to make it easier for employers with expanding businesses to access bespoke training.

In sum, for the price of two badly-designed tax credits, Manitoba could make real investments in access, both in terms of financial aid and providing spaces in under-served areas, increase support to Indigenous students and communities, improve the quality of education and provide more funds for employer-led training that could help relieve skills bottlenecks for investors.  How could you pass this up?  Who wouldn’t do this?

Over to you, Manitoba.

October 21

A Prairie Round-up

If you’re a long-time reader of this blog, you’ll know that every spring I put together a little summary of provincial budgets and what they mean for higher education.  A few days ago I decided to put together a slide comparing the cumulative changes in provincial funding since 2011.  Here’s what it looks like, in inflation-adjusted dollars.

Figure 1: Change in real provincial government transfers to institutions, 2011-2 to 2016-17

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What should immediately jump out at you (apart from the raging dumpster fire that is Newfoundland’s public fisc these days) is that while public funding for universities is flat or declining in most of the country, in the three prairie provinces increases have been the order of the day.  So what’s going on out there?

The nature of the trend-bucking has differed across the three provinces.  In Saskatchewan and Alberta, high energy prices kept spending buoyant at least until a couple of years ago.  Since then, Alberta’s new NDP government has continued to spend, whereas Saskatchewan’s has started to retrench (but spending is still higher  than it was in 2011).  Manitoba’s never-too-hot, never-too-cold economy hasn’t see the big revenues fluctuations of its neighbours, but until earlier this year had a government that was prepared to engage in deficit spending in part so as to provide significant support to post-secondary education.

(You can get the gist of recent policy directions by looking at my recent provincial election analyses for Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta).

So what’s in store for those three provinces now?  Well, for the moment they seem headed in quite different directions.  In Alberta, there were a lot of headlines about the NDP government extending its tuition freeze for a third year, but the interesting part of the announcement was that the Government simultaneously launched a review of the tuition policy with a view to a long-term funding solution.  Now, given that this is a government with a heck of a deficit that isn’t going to be solved through rising oil and gas prices any time soon, you’d have to think this “review” is in fact likely to end up twelve months from now with institutions being able to move somewhat on fees.  Because while the provincial government has been compensating institutions for the freeze, that still leaves income growth at around 2%. As we all know, Canadian universities start to seize up whenever the growth rate drops below 4% –  so there’s a gap there that has to be plugged somehow, and higher fees are almost certainly at least part of the solution.

In Saskatchewan, fees aren’t much on the agenda but the level of government support is.  Resource price falls mean that the government is running a $14 billion budget on $13 billion of revenue, so the province is talking very seriously about shrinking the size of government by 7% or so over the next two years. PSE will undoubtedly get its fair share of that cut; and that’s on top of a 7% cut over the last two years.  Yet so fast was expenditure growth in the first couple of years of this decade that even this massive cut will only bring the province back to the level of spending it was at in 2011.  The government speaks of looking for “transformational change” in PSE but the likelier result will be a lot of unpleasant but ultimately non-transformational corner-cutting and muddling through.

Manitoba feels like the place where fireworks are likeliest.  It has a new Conservative government with a mandate to pull back at least somewhat on public finances. Post-secondary education, one of the previous NDP government’s favourite files, seems likely to get hit the worst.  But the new government has some tools to mitigate these losses: tuition (currently 3rd lowest in the country) can rise, and a ghastly, wasteful post-graduation tax credit can be scrapped.  The former seems more likely than the latter, but both are possible.

Meanwhile, the University of Manitoba Faculty Association, the union which sicced CAUT on its own members when an Economics department dispute over curriculum didn’t go the way some people wanted, has decided that now is the PERFECT TIME to hold a strike to support a wage demand of – are you ready for this? – 6.9% over one year.

If UMFA’s serious about this demand, it could be a long strike.  And that’s not because the demand is unaffordable – in theory anything’s affordable if you cut back enough on library budgets or whatever.  It’s simply politics: the new government is not going to go easy on any para-public body which appears to be out of step with the new mood of thrift.  Just imagine the scene at the MB legislature if the institution were to cave on this:

U of M: “We would like some more money please.  We’re kind of strapped on account of having just given the faculty a 6.9% raise”

Conservative Govt: “HAHAHAHAHAHA Come back when you learn to manage your way out of a wet paper bag”

Agreeing to such a rise would be like signing a suicide note.  Unlikely to happen.

Have a good weekend.

April 05

Manitoba Election Manifesto Analysis

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.

February 02

Why is CAUT Cheapening Academic Freedom?

Academic freedom is precious; it’s not something you want to mess with  – which is why it is such a mystery that the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) permitted the Report of the Ad-hoc Investigatory Committee into the Department of Economics at the University of Manitoba to be published.

The back story, near as I can tell, is: for decades, the UManitoba Economics Department contained a fairly large squad of what are known as “heterodox” economists (i.e. political economy types who in the 70s would mostly have described themselves as Marxist or Institutionalist).  They were never a majority within the department, but they certainly gave the place an overall pinkish tinge.

Then, for obscure reasons around 2006, relations between heterodox and “mainstream” factions in the department seemed to deteriorate.  There appears to have been some seriously childish spats at departmental meetings.  There was a contentious departmental chair search, which one of the “hets” lost.  New hires tended to be reserved for mainstream economists, which hurt the hets’ feelings, as they wanted to maintain the “balance” between heterodox and mainstream.  Hets’ grad students tended to get the short end of the stick when it came to recommendations and funding, or would be told they were unlikely to get jobs after graduation. Etc., etc.

Now, this kind of stuff happens all over academia.  What a discipline believes collectively about itself and its methods changes over time.  Those  on the “winning” side tend to do pretty well; the other side, less so.  We’ve seen fights like this over post-modernism in History, critical theory in English, and in anthropology between its cultural and social wings (at Stanford, that fight got so bad in the 90s that they temporarily split Anthro into two separate departments).

In a decent workplace, management would have told everyone to shut up and get back to working together.  But in universities this almost never occurs; “collegiality” permits a lot of bad behaviour to go unpunished.  And so instead of everyone finding a way to work together like adults, someone went and convinced CAUT to send out a commission of inquiry to find out if the treatment of the heterodox amounted to a violation of academic freedom.

The thing is, if you get CAUT to “investigate” a claim, you can be pretty sure the answer will be “yes”; examples of “investigations” where the complainant is not found in the right are pretty much non-existent.  Everyone at University of Manitoba knew this, and so two-thirds of the department – basically everyone in the orthodox camp – simply refused to talk to investigators. This fact is largely glossed over in the report itself, but it’s significant both because the report is almost certainly unbalanced in the complainants’ direction, but also because it’s clear that a whole bunch of CAUT members believe that CAUT does not have their interests in mind.

Predictably, the investigating team “found” that the hets’ minority academic rights had been infringed.  To correct this, they suggested (among other things) a new search for a department head, and ensuring that the next three appointments all be heterodox economists.  Their rationale was that mainstream economists have “persecuted” heterodox, just as the established church used to persecute free-thinking academics (and yes, really, that was the argument).

Now, possibly, there is an argument to be made that the sandbox fights have become so extreme that it’s time to take the Stanford route, and take the hets out of Economics by creating a Department of Political Economy.  But the idea that minority views within a discipline automatically deserve “protection” and guaranteed quotas of appointments?  Who would police this?  Would CAUT argue the same for climate change deniers in Environmental Sciences?  That way madness lies.

But more importantly, the idea that even the unbalanced parade of allegations presented in the report amount to an infringement of academic freedom is simply nonsense.  No one’s fundamental rights of expression or freedom of inquiry were eroded; at the absolute worst, what occurred amounts to ideologically-based intra-departmental sniping and score-settling.  To claim that this amounts to a violation of academic freedom is to deprive the term of all meaning.

And that’s bad, because academic freedom matters.  The last organization that should be cheapening this is CAUT, and the worst reason to do so is in helping out a few ideological fellow-travellers in a sandbox fight against other academics.  Yet here we are.

October 21

“Academic Freedom” or “Freedom from Evaluation”?

So, you may have heard that the University of Manitoba Faculty Association (UMFA) is threatening a strike, starting tomorrow.  What you may not have grasped is just how thin the grounds for the strike are.

You can see the university’s full bargaining position, here; UMFA, in contrast, has publicly issued only a single note (responding to a missive from the administration, which it felt was misleading) and an open letter to students published in the Free Press.  Frankly, for a group threatening to disrupt the lives of tens of thousands of students, this is pretty poor form (St. FX’s faculty union was admirably communicative during its strike, last year).  But we’ll let that pass for the moment.

Refreshingly, UMFA says the strike is not about money.  Instead, they say it’s about academic freedom.  One key issue is the desire to enshrine the right to criticize the administration in the collective bargaining agreement – which, you know, is fair enough, though it’s not obvious that there are extant cases of intimidation or retaliation that would make this grounds for a walkout.

The more important file, according to UMFA, is performance evaluation.  What UMFA wants is – and I quote – with respect to tenure, pay, and promotion, “no prescribed journals, venues, enumeration of publications or dollar amounts of research funding may be established or taken into consideration.”

Now, I do understand the objection to prescribed lists of journals, but there are easy solutions here that would still ensure that professors are publishing in rigorous journals.  External reviewers could assess individual cases (I understand Waterloo does this), journal impact factors could be used, or, if that’s too passé, one could use citation counts as evidence that at least other scholars find your work useful.  I can also see that prescribing dollar amounts of grants might be problematic, though in many fields it’s not too much to ask for a number greater than zero.

And the administration apparently sees this, too – they’ve already conceded on both of those points (see: page 9 of the admin response). What the admin hasn’t given in on is the bit about enumeration.  Read the passage above again… UMFA does not want enumeration of publications to count for pay, promotion, or apparently even tenure, for God’s sake.

Mind-blowing, huh? I understand the arguments against “publish or perish”, but this is bananas.

From UMFA’s public communications, it’s difficult to escape the impression that this strike is really about redefining “academic freedom” as “freedom from evaluation”.  That’s not something any reputable university can accept, and it’s a terrible reason to disrupt students’ semesters.  Hopefully, everybody will return to their senses before tomorrow’s strike deadline.

September 15

The Manitoba Election

Just to show we’re not irretrievably Ontario-centric, we’ll be doing short snapshots of party platforms in all provinces with elections this fall.

First up, my home province of Manitoba.

Choices are stark in the only province to have shot its way into confederation: in the last 11 elections, only one has resulted in a minority government and only one resulted in the Conservatives and New Democrats combined receiving less than 85% of the seats. It’s one or the other (which if nothing else is handy to keep this note below 350 words). Perhaps unsurprisingly, the NDP is going big on PSE; holding tuition to inflation, promising 5% annual increases in operating grants to institutions, and increasing student financial aid (the wording in the platform is vague enough to encompass both need- and merit-based grants, but given the party’s recent history, it would be surprising if it were not the former). It’s not a particularly inspiring or visionary platform – more sort of status quo plus a couple of percentage points. But it’s a whole heck of a lot better than most Canadian institutions can expect over the next few years.

The Tories have rolled out a number of specific-yet-vague policies. They want to make sure higher education is “focused on the market,” say they will “support University College of the North to encourage additional training opportunities for Northerners” and “ensure that there is a credit transfer system.” All of which is well and good, but rather beg the question, “How, exactly?”

Intriguingly, the Tories have matched the NDP on holding tuition to inflation. But they’ve not said anything about grants to institutions. Which isn’t surprising since they’re talking about closing a $500 million budget gap plus reducing a raft of taxes. That inevitably means spending cuts, and while post-secondary education might be spared, it’s nevertheless unlikely a Macfayden government would provide institutions with anything like the annual increases the NDP are promising. Seems Canada’s becoming more European by the day: freezing prices commands universal political support but ensuring strong funding to institutions doesn’t. It’s time institutions began paying attention.