Presidents of 2 Manitoba universities wary of funding higher education using certain outcomes

Manitoba’s plans to change the way it finances universities and colleges is facing opposition from presidents of some of those institutions.

In separate letters to the government, University of Manitoba president Michael Benarroch asked the province to refrain from tying funding to data, while Brandon University president David Docherty warned the metrics contemplated by government could come at the expense of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The letters suggest the Progressive Conservative government may have trouble convincing post-secondary stakeholders to support its proposed overhaul in how it funds higher education.

“We don’t want to be driving away students from post-secondary education. We want increased access,” Scott Forbes, president of the Manitoba Organization of Faculty Associations, said in an interview.

The province has repeatedly signalled its intention to explore some form of performance-based funding, which would be tailored to targets such as students’ progression, degree/diploma attainment and graduates’ incomes. A majority of American states and some Canadian provinces have developed a funding model of this style.

More accountability needed: minister

Manitoba’s Advanced Education Minister Jon Reyes said he wants post-secondary institutions to be accountable for the public dollars they receive. The auditor general said in a 2020 report the amount of government oversight over post-secondary schools was lacking.

Reyes has said that consultations, which began in the spring, will inform which metrics are used locally.

In their letters, neither Benarroch nor Docherty said that a outcomes-based model could be achieved, and both raised objections to the government’s approach.

A recent consultation guide from the advanced education department said possible metrics could include student completion, student progression, Indigenous student success, graduate employment, graduate earnings, external partnerships and financial management.

After a June 17 consultation meeting, Benarroch stressed a number of accountability mechanisms are already in place, including regular reporting to the province, according to his letter.

Michael Benarroch, president of the University of Manitoba, said a performance-based funding model could result in ‘unintended consequences’ like limiting institutions from creating programs that address equity and social justice. (Alia Youssef/University of Manitoba)

He said any new metrics must recognize the “different strengths and contributions among all Manitoba institutions” and should only consider areas post-secondary institutions have a say in. “Employment and earnings by graduates, for example, are not within the institutions’ control,” he wrote in his Aug. 2 letter.

He said divvying out funding based on certain measures can “come at a cost to other priorities, such as accessibility,” since institutions may then prioritize students and programs most likely to benefit the labour market.

Such a funding arrangement can “also have the effect of punishing institutions for building programs that may not connect directly to these specific metrics, such as those that address equity and social justice.”

Skills and success

Meanwhile, Brandon University’s Docherty warned in his letter, dated Oct. 14, the province’s measures could “distort [the] true performance” of his university.

He said the university is a hub for the Westman region and attracts students from elsewhere in rural and northern Manitoba.

He said BU prides itself in providing educational opportunities to students who may not come from the traditional background of a post-secondary student. Every person with a Grade 12 degree can enrol. 

As such, Docherty said, BU students may take longer to graduate and since many return to rural settings post-graduation, their wages tend to be lower than in urban centres.

Brandon University president David Docherty said his institution’s status as a regional university could be harmed by metrics that prioritize categories like graduation rates. (CBC)

The university gets many Indigenous students who hope to gain certain skill sets, he explained, rather than earning a degree. 

“If a student, Indigenous or not, comes to BU for a two-year experience, leaves happy, and is gainfully employed in their community, why would the province penalize the institution that provided this person with the skills to be successful?” Docherty wrote.

He suggested performance-based measures for BU could assess the university’s impact on the community, ranging from the number of musical concerts to the number of kids attending sports camps.

“These are all legitimate measures of our role as a regional university. They are not necessarily measured in alumni earnings some arbitrary number of years post-graduation, but rather on the deep and ongoing impact our students … make right here in Brandon, in Westman and across Manitoba.”

While universities and colleges may prefer individualized metrics, Kelly Saunders, a Brandon University professor who attended one of the government’s consultations, said it would be difficult for the province to devise such a system since these models usually have a standard set of metrics.

Universities have wide-ranging purpose: professor

Saunders said universities shouldn’t be treated as institutions that exist to churn out job-ready graduates.

“We point to the importance of not only educating people to be engineers and doctors and lawyers, but also educating people to be critical thinkers, to be able to ask questions when they read something on Facebook … and to really ask the bigger questions that a thoughtful, engaged, critical thinking public citizenry should be asking.”

Forbes, with the Manitoba Organization of Faculty Associations, said post-secondary institutions are becoming more accessible. He worries a new funding model could change that.

Manitoba currently funds universities with a lump-sum grant payment. (Darin Morash/CBC)

“We want everybody in society to have a chance at moving up the social ladder that higher education provides.”

University College of the North president Doug Lauvstad said in an interview he’s open to a new funding formula, so long as the distinctiveness of each place of higher learning remains intact.

“We want to make sure that it’s done in a way that improves the overall student experience, that recognizes each institution’s unique characteristics and strengthens the system.”

Reyes was not available for an interview, but his department said consultations will continue into the fall and the new year, including the launch of a new survey on the government website.

“A well-developed framework can support greater oversight, in accordance with the auditor general’s recommendations, and to improve the department’s ability to report and celebrate Manitoba’s institutions’ positive outcomes to the public,” said a department spokesperson in an email.

The government said it is only looking at how other Canadian provinces have established accountability metrics, rather than any U.S. or international models.

In 2020, however, former premier Brian Pallister said he was looking to follow the lead of Tennessee, the American state that pioneered this funding model. 

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