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Manitoba's new Conservative government could mean bad news for students

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Image: Facebook/Brian Pallister

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As the dust settles on the April 19 election, the change in Manitoba's government and the unveiling of Brian Pallister's new cabinet, there are signs that this government will take a different direction than the previous NDP administration. While this shift should not come as any surprise to political observers, the public will be aware of subtle changes for the new cabinet positions, like the replacement of the Conservation and Water Stewardship department with that of a minister responsible for Sustainable Development or the controversy around the appointment of an Anglophone minister to be responsible for Francophone Affairs. 

While on the surface, these moves might signal an expected shift of Manitoba's new government, there are larger questions about the political and bureaucratic trajectory that key departments and initiatives such as the future of post-secondary education will follow in the coming four years.

As part of the new cabinet, the new Progressive Conservative government has chosen to dissolve the existing department of Labour and Immigration. This will mark the first time since the 1950s that a provincial cabinet will be without a minister responsible for labour. While the labour portfolio has been scuttled off into other departments, the coordination of immigration targets, policies and settlement efforts of the previous ministry has been moved into the portfolio of Education and Advanced Learning.

The previous NDP government prioritized immigration through the provincial nominee program, which had been initiated by the previous Progressive Conservative government of the 1990s. The program focused on recruiting skilled workers to Manitoba, with some figures estimating that over 150,000 new Canadians had arrived in Manitoba since 1999.The NDP also focused on family reunification, a priority that disappeared under the Harper government but has re-emerged as a focus for the federal Liberals under Immigration Minister John McCallum

Moving responsibility for immigration to new Education Minister Ian Wishart may be symbolic of a larger policy shift for the new government. During the campaign, the PCs did not present a substantial vision for the management and direction of Manitoba's post-secondary institutions, pledging only to increase support for scholarships, leaving universities and colleges in the lurch as they calculate their operating budgets for the upcoming year without a guarantee of funding increases promised by the outgoing NDP administration in January. Similarly, the PCs did not pledge to keep the cap on tuition fee increases to the rate of inflation, leaving the financial future of post-secondary institutions and students alike in question. 

Burden shifted to international students

In Manitoba, while tuition fee increases for domestic students are capped at the rate of inflation, tuition fees for international students, whose numbers grew from 4,762 in 2004 to 7,243 in 2012, are set at the whim of the institution that they choose to attend. Tuition fees often rise on an annual basis in an effort to balance deficits, which has prompted protests from international students as some feel they are being used as "cash cows" to address budgetary deficits.

The appointment of Bramwell Stein, replacing Gerald Farthing as the new deputy minister for education, may signify the direction the Conservatives want to take for post-secondary education. As a former Director for Western Diversification Canada with a policy-based focus on immigration, Stein may be tasked with refocusing immigration efforts to encompass younger students rather than older families, mirroring the federal strategy that aims to double the number of international students in Canada by 2022. An increase of that magnitude to the enrollment of international students in Manitoba may very well accompany a freeze in base funding for post-secondary institutions, lifting the cap on tuition fees increases or a combination of those and other options.

Under the previous government, the number of students attending post-secondary in Manitoba grew exponentially, with an increase of 44 per cent from 1999 to 2014. Alongside increased provincial investment, affordable tuition and a low cost of living overall, enrollment bloomed and institutions made massive capital investments in new facilities, while also doubling the number of international students over a 10-year period.

Alongside comparatively affordable tuition fees, the provision of provincial coverage for international students makes Manitoba an attractive destination for international students, who generate approximately $230 million in provincial economic activity annually.

While the post-secondary sector has made tremendous progress in terms of capital investments, continued growth of enrollment and continued access for all Manitobans, it is unclear what the future of the system is at this point in time. Will the new Pallister government expect students, both domestic and international to carry more of the financial burden in the absence of increases to provincial funding? Or will a forthcoming freeze in provincial operating grants force institutions to continue to cut costs and balance the books on the backs of students?

Additionally, what role does the new government see international students playing in immigration priorities and how do those priorities align with those of the (relatively) new federal government? These are the questions that university administrations, students and Manitobans should be asking of their new government as they settle into power on Broadway.

Zach Fleisher served as Chairperson for the Canadian Federation of Students-Manitoba in 2014-2015 and served as the press secretary to the Minister of Education.

Update: Zach ran as a provincial NDP candidate in Manitoba's last election.

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