Following a provincial cabinet shuffle, a new minister is set to take charge of Manitoba’s post-secondary portfolio.
Previously the minister of mental health and community wellness and the minister of conservation and climate before then, Sarah Guillemard was announced as the new minister of advanced education and training on Jan. 30.
While Guillemard has no experience overseeing advanced education, she said that she believes “all departments influence one another.”
“It’s important to understand how government itself works, and the different processes internally,” she said.
UMSU and the Manitoba Alliance of Post-Secondary Students (MAPSS) are two organizations that work closely with the minister.
Victoria Romero, chair of MAPSS and UMSU vice-president advocacy, highlighted the “incredibly complex” nature of the advanced education portfolio.
“There have been incredible barriers to advanced education throughout history, and understanding how to open those barriers and to make education accessible for everyone throughout the province is not an easy task,” she said.
Romero said that given Guillemard’s prior position in the legislature, they are particularly hopeful to see engagement from the minister regarding the issue of student mental health.
“We’re hoping that Minister Guillemard will have a deep understanding of the common, complex concern of students’ mental health and the mental health crisis that is occurring all over the country right now,” she added.
One concern that MAPSS has regarding the appointment of the new minister is the fact that the province’s five-year mental health plan established under Guillemard, “A Pathway to Mental Health and Community Wellness: A Roadmap for Manitoba,” makes no mention of post-secondary students.
Guillemard plays a second role that concerns students at the U of M. In 2016, she was elected as MLA of Fort Richmond — the provincial riding that the U of M’s Fort Garry campus is situated in. She still occupies this position today.
Guillemard is currently familiarizing herself with the specific concerns of post-secondary institutions. One such issue involves developing a “framework of accountability” following a 2020 report from the auditor general that highlighted a lack of government oversight in post- secondary institutions.
A concern among post-secondary students and faculty that emerged from this report was the possibility of implementing performance-based funding for Manitoba post-secondary institutions.
“I’ll continue that work of exploring what accountability looks like and what measures would be acceptable to partners in this field so that we can really address those recommendations,” Guillemard said.
Guillemard is also looking forward to continuing discussions regarding the labour needs of the province.
As budget announcement season approaches, Romero said that MAPSS and UMSU are hoping to see an increase in the operating grants of publicly funded post-secondary institutions. They are also hoping that there is no rise in the maximum tuition fee increase percentage.
Regarding changes coming to post-secondary education, Guillemard said that she can’t reveal specifics yet, but that she anticipates “good news in the short term for sure.” She said that the province is currently communicating budgets to post-secondary institutions, “so there will be some exciting news in that realm.”
Romero pointed to both the union and the alliance’s dissatisfaction with Jon Reyes’s outreach to post-secondary institutions while he acted as minister of advanced education, skills and immigration.
“He performed the role, but didn’t particularly vocalize or listen to the concerns that we were presenting to him, and we didn’t really have the opportunity to present them,” Romero said.
Romero emphasized that even though the new minister does not have professional experience overseeing advanced education, “the most important quality the minister could have is the ability to listen to students.”
“The will to understand the impact of advanced education on individuals within it, whether it be the students, professors or otherwise, is crucial,” she said.
Romero added that she and the rest of the UMSU team would “love to build the foundation of laying down a consistent, collaborative relationship with the minister and with the province in general.”