Performance-based funding limits student access

Previously published in the Winnipeg Free Press Friday Feb. 3, 2023

By Julius Chester

In Manitoba, post-secondary education reform has long been a project of the provincial government, dating back to 2016 when former premier Brian Pallister made it a priority to cut public funding.

During this time, the post-secondary sector has seen the introduction of many unfavourable policies, which caused tuition to rise and prompted students to take on more debt or simply choose not to pursue post-secondary education at all.

The government has squeezed this young generation and their families for every dollar possible by increasing student tuition by almost 20 per cent to make up for government underfunding, and cutting grants and bursaries from the ACCESS program designated for low-income and racialized students.

This is why the promise of performance-based funding (PBF) has created so many question and concerns. As a failed funding initiative in the United States, PBF has had little to no positive impact on students.

PBF is a funding model in which the government doles out public funding to post-secondary institutions on the basis of predetermined metrics, specified by the government of the day. Should an institution fail to meet any of these metrics, the result would be less funding, forcing institutions to increase students’ tuition to make up for these gaps.

The Tennessee model the provincial government wishes to adopt aims to use these reforms to benefit private-sector interests, which would directly impact the autonomy of students and faculty in the studies and research they wish to pursue.

This is done in the guise of “financial accountability” — which is simply the government’s hidden language for austerity measures and the continued underfunding for higher education.

PBF policies have never been used to reduce tuition for students: instead, they are utilized under the banner of “performance” and “metrics” to justify funding cuts. Differential fees, often used in PBF models, burdens students with rising tuition for programs that receive less funding, as has happened in other jurisdictions to the arts and humanities, among other areas of study.

PBF is used to to deter marginalized and low-income people from attending post-secondary institutions.

PBF would worsen the student experience in Manitoba. Forced to fulfil these government-mandated requirements, universities would see their enrolment as a cost to their bottom line, preferring students from affluent backgrounds who can complete their degrees in a three- to four-year time span with minimal academic support.

In government consultations, students across Manitoba have taken a clear stand against these so-called “fiscal accountability” efforts and the proposal of using metrics in funding decisions.

The implementation of PBF in Manitoba does little but give the province more control and bureaucratic oversight on public funding, so as to ensure increases to operational grants remain below inflation.

Despite these clear policy shortcomings, the government is still unclear in its messaging. During a media conference after last November’s throne speech, Premier Heather Stefanson acknowledged her government needed to take a step back on performance-based funding policies — a subtle but significant win for students.

But the minister of advanced education has since remained silent on whether post-secondary institutions will remain free from private-sector interests.

Students and faculty alike have been clear that PBF will only limit opportunities and negatively impact students who already struggle in their post-secondary studies. Students continue to propose alternative solutions to PBF which would better their university experience; the government needs only to listen.

The Canadian Federation of Students – Manitoba stands strongly in opposition to performance-based funding models and supports policies that increase employment opportunities for students of all academic fields.

The government of Manitoba needs to be forward-thinking for its students by implementing paid co-operatives. The implementation of these programs would not only help students get ahead as they begin their professional careers, but would also help to alleviate financial burdens, whether they be growing student debt or the rising cost of living.

Instead, our post-secondary institutions need stable and robust long-term funding plans, for the sake of both students and the administrative planning of our faculty, who can anticipate and understand their own needs best.

Government must listen to its constituents and sector leaders. Students in Manitoba should have the right to make their own choices in pursuing post-secondary education, and not feel as though they are limited to what their government deems they can afford.

Julius Chester is the Manitoba organizer for the Canadian Federation of Students – Manitoba, and a research affiliate with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives – Manitoba.