To the delight of many university and college students, NDP leadership candidate Steve Ashton has promised that, if elected premier, he will bring back the tuition freeze.
“I’m a strong believer in affordability for our tuition, and the way we’ve done that for the last 10 years of government is by freezing tuition and I am committed to continuing that freeze,” said Ashton.
Critics of the tuition freeze have said that it left post-secondary institutions in Manitoba underfunded and their quality of education far behind that of institutions in other provinces.
MLA Gerald Hawranik, Progressive Conservative advanced education critic, said, “After that many years of tuition freezes and under funding, I think the end result is that universities may never catch up [ . . . ]. We have not kept pace with universities across the country.”
Some experts agree that funding is a huge issue for post-secondary education in the province.
“The funding issue always comes up as number one,” said Richard Sigurdson, political science professor and dean of Arts at the University of Manitoba.
“Compared to other provinces, the province of Manitoba has not funded its universities, and in particular its only medical doctorate research intensive university, to a significant level.”
In spite of these criticisms, the tuition freeze is a popular option for many students facing the financial barriers of higher education.
On Oct. 6, Ashton received two thirds of the youth delegate vote at the Manitoba Young New Democrats meeting at the University of Winnipeg.
“He was clearly going after this kind of group within the NDP delegate selection voters,” said Sigurdson.
“I’m not sure if I would use the word pandering, but it was clearly targeted at the youth vote because there is a popular sentiment among that group that tuition freezes are the [plan students want to see] in respect to students and PSE. It’s something that immediately attracts them.”
Ashton’s opponent in the race for premier, Greg Selinger, has proposed making the existing 60 per cent tuition rebate accessible to students as an alternative to the tuition freeze.
Selinger explained that he saw it as a better approach because it would cover more students, and only have the requirement that those receiving the rebate live and work in Manitoba following graduation.
“It would be available to you as an advance while your going to school, so you have it while you need it.”
While Selinger’s proposed rebate may be less popular, some believe this may be due to the tuition freeze being less complex , the results of which are easier to see.
“The tuition freeze is simpler to understand and is being proposed to attract support from people who think, ‘Oh well this is going to make it easier for me to go to university, and make it easier for less advantaged people to go to university,’” explained Sigurdson.
He continued, ”Tax rebates, bursaries for students in need, is a more nuanced but therefore more complicated policy to explain to the general public.”
“I think that while it’s a better public policy, it may be harder for Mr. Selinger to sell to the broad masses.”
Both candidates have made it clear in their campaign platforms that making post secondary education both affordable and accessible for all students is a key issue in Manitoba.
“There are still a lot of people that realistically don’t have the opportunity to attend PSE,” explained Ashton of his plan to make post secondary education in the province more accessible.
“There are students that drop out because of financial and personal pressures that go with post-secondary education.”
“We want to reduce the financial pressures faced by students and their families,” said Selinger of his six-point plan to improve access and affordability of post-secondary education.
“In addition, we need to find better ways to ensure Manitobans have greater access to the education they need to build brighter futures.”
Some student representatives believe it is the financial barriers students face today that provide the biggest obstacles to post-secondary education.
University of Manitoba Student’s Union president Sid Rashid said, “That’s everything from tuition fees to all the ancillary fees to lack of bursaries and upfront grants to low incomes to individuals in poverty. I think financial issues are huge.”
The NDP leadership race wraps up Oct. 17, when delegates will choose a new leader at the party convention.