Performance-based funding still on the table for Manitoba universities

University faculty, Opposition strongly oppose the model

Despite concerns from university faculty and the official Opposition, the provincial government is still considering a performance-based funding model for universities in Manitoba.

The decision to look into a performance-based funding model came after responsibility for post-secondary institutions was moved from the Department of Education and Training to the Department of Economic Development and Training. It now sits under the Department of Advanced Education, Skills and Immigration.

The provincial government has been consistent in its intentions to tailor post-secondary education toward the needs of the Manitoba labour market. In its Skills, Talent and Knowledge Strategy released in February 2021, one of the objectives outlined was to “align education and training to labour market needs,” and one of the immediate actions recommended was to create a new funding model based on performance and outcomes.

When the recommendation was first brought forward by former Premier Brian Pallister, the province was considering the Tennessee model of funding.

Universities in Tennessee receive the majority of their state funding based on outcomes, considering metrics like number of degrees awarded, graduation rates and number of credit hours earned.

In contrast, a recent Statistics Canada report on university funding found that Canadian universities received the majority of their funding from the province in the 2020-21 fiscal year. The report highlighted that the amount of funding received continues to decrease, with institutions looking to tuition to make up the loss.

In the past, reductions to provincial funding in Manitoba have caused the U of M to rely more heavily on tuition for its operations.

Jamie Moses, critic for advanced education and economic development, said that the actual framework of the potential model has not been released by Minister of Advanced Education, Skills and Immigration Jon Reyes’s office, but that it appears a plan for performance based funding is in the works right now.

Moses also stated that the minister has not released details concerning the metrics the funding would be based on, or how much funding would be tied to performance.

He voiced his concern, and said that he has heard “a very strong opposition to performance-based funding both from faculty members and from students, who see a huge, huge risk to advanced education in Manitoba.”

“Anything that makes funding more difficult to advanced education or makes advanced education more unaffordable or more inaccessible only goes to hurt students, our universities and colleges, and ultimately, our economy in Manitoba,” he said.

Moses referred to Bill 33, a controversial amendment to the Advanced Education Administration Act, that granted the minister the ability to issue guidelines for tuition fees and student fees set by a university.

According to Moses, because the bill permits the minister to change tuition at the ministerial level, funding could be affected as well.

“It enables the minister to have more freedom and control […] and that could override the goals or the objective of an administration, or even a student body.”

The bill also rang alarm bells for Manitoba Organization of Faculty Associations (MOFA) president and University of Winnipeg biology professor Scott Forbes, who said that “beyond just training students to fill jobs in a local economy, universities perform a much broader role,” and that they require autonomy to fill that role.

A bill similar to Bill 33 was struck down in Ontario in 2019, with the court ruling that the government was interfering with the autonomy of universities.

Aside from the function of educating students and developing key skills, which Forbes said is key, university faculty curate knowledge that creates a body of experts used by the public at large, who often lend their expertise to media broadcasts or times of crisis.

Forbes said that a large objection MOFA has to performance-based funding in general is that “it doesn’t work.”

Research at universities in the U.S. have shown that performance-based funding does not achieve its policy goals, often having minimal to no effect on student retention and graduation. Over time, it can even reduce the amount of skilled workers entering the workforce.

MOFA has been opposed to the model since it was first introduced in Manitoba, and most recently, presented a brief to the province outlining its members’ concerns.

Forbes said that performance-based funding results in institutions exploiting the system, and that “in some cases, the unintended consequences are disastrous.”

He explained that universities may become more exclusive, shifting funding away from supports for low-income students and potentially turning them into scholarships for high- achieving students instead.

“This distorts the whole system, and it raises barriers to many groups, especially traditionally marginalized groups,” he said.

Further, Forbes explained that the move may be a way to disguise post-secondary funding cuts, with the province potentially using the university and its metrics as a scapegoat to reduce funds.

“It’s really an attack on public education, full stop,” he said.

The decision to consider performance-based funding was influenced by a report from the auditor general released October 2020, which raised governance and financial concerns after examining seven post-secondary institutions in Manitoba.

Despite these concerns, MOFA objects to the idea that performance-based funding is the way to improve fiscal oversight. Instead, the organization’s brief suggested increasing training for the board of governors, or establishing a governmental body to oversee the budgeting process.

Minister Reyes declined request for an interview, but spokesperson Brant Batters said in an email statement to the Manitoban that “the province is trying to improve accountability and oversight for the significant amount of public funding the province provides to post-secondary institutions to help illustrate the value Manitobans expect.”

Batters referred to the 2020 audit, which recommended the development of an outcomes- based funding model. The audit claimed that tying funding to performance would “serve as an essential component of an accountability framework going forward.”

Batters said that the department is engaging with post-secondary institutions, faculty associations, student groups and Indigenous government organizations on an accountability framework, because “a well-developed framework can support greater oversight for the use of public funding,” and that it may “improve the department’s ability to report on Manitoba’s institutions’ positive outcomes to the public.”