Gary Doer announced last week that he was stepping down as the premier of Manitoba after 10 years in office and was named Canada’s next ambassador to the United States.
The end of Doer’s 10 years in office comes not long after students learned of the end of the 10-year tuition freeze that was in place during much of Doer’s time as premier. During the past 10 years, the freeze overshadowed Doer’s post-secondary education policies and brought the government as much criticism as it did support.
Richard Sigurdson, political science professor and dean of Arts at the University of Manitoba said that the guiding principle of the Doer government in terms of post-secondary education was access and that this idea dominated all of his government’s decision making.
“They tended to focus on access primarily as a financial matter and hence the policy of freezing tuition for almost the entire time of Mr. Doer’s premiership,” said Sigurdson.
MLA Gerald Hawranik, Progressive Conservative advanced education critic, said that it was this same tuition freeze policy that while receiving much support from students, left universities inadequately funded and reduced the quality of education in Manitoba.
“After that many years of tuition freezes and under funding, I think the end result is that universities may never catch up with all those years of cut backs and neglect. We have not kept pace with universities across the country,” said Hawranik.
Hawranik criticized old laboratory equipment, larger class sizes and noted that in 1999, tenured professors taught 60 per cent of students and more recently numbers have decreased to 44 per cent.
“The reality is the students are the loser. You might have more money in your pocket when you graduate but if you don’t have the quality of education you need, what good is that?” he said.
Diane McGifford, advanced education minister said that the Doer government has increased funding every year and recognize that universities cannot operate if they do not have the financial support. She noted that student participation has increased by 35 per cent since 1999 and that this increase must be taken into consideration.
“Universities complain [about] the tuition freeze but I think we also have to remember that they received a greater amount of gross dollars in tuition because there were so many more students there. They will say more students are more cost but there is also the economy of scale. It is cheaper to educate, per student, 20 students than 10.”
She said that since Doer was elected, $700 million in capital support has been directed to post-secondary education and bursaries have increased to over $8 million. She noted that the tuition tax rebate program will return 60 per cent of eligible tuition fees to graduates who live and work in Manitoba.
“The premier has always been quite adamant, right from 1999 when we were elected, that [we] cannot have a sound economy without a sound post-secondary system,” said McGifford.
Sigurdson said the Doer’s government saw it as important to open up opportunities for non-traditional learners whose participation in post-secondary education was traditionally quite low. This included the construction of the University College of the North; a post-secondary institution with campuses located in northern Manitoba and designed to reflect aboriginal culture.
He said that post-secondary education infrastructure improvements supported by Doer government were often overshadowed by the tuition freeze noting recent developments at the University of Winnipeg, Red River College and the University of Manitoba.
“I think if you compare the Doer government to some of the contemporary governments in the country, there perhaps wasn’t as much of a focus on the need to expand graduate education. The Ontario government, [as well as those in] Saskatchewan and Alberta, decided Canada is not educating its fair share of graduate students and we need to put more money into graduate education. That didn’t really happen in this province,” said Sigurdson.
According to Sigurdson, the current trend seen in Manitoba NDP post-secondary policies will not change as Doer steps down. He said that what may be lost with a new party leader is Doer’s effective intergovernmental relations.
“While the policies of the NDP may not change, it’s not evident that we’re going to get an individual on top who’s as effective as Mr. Doer was in advancing the cause of partnership with federal government in the post-secondary education sector.”