News / Winnipeg

Students prepared to fight fee hike, lobby for free tuition

The NDP wants to make tuition free, but the government wants to remove the cap holding fee increases to inflation rates.

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The past few days have been marked by highs and lows for student advocates in Manitoba—from elation at the prospect of free tuition, to disappointment at the potential of increased fees.

Michael Barkman, chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) Manitoba chapter, said both developments will require vigilance and ongoing student lobbying.

On the one hand, a motion to do away with tuition fees was supported at the New Democratic Party’s annual convention.

“It’s kind of unprecedented at least in Manitoba to see a party endorse fully funded education,” Barkman noted, adding it is something CFS has been lobbying for and, given the NDP’s fall from power at the last provincial election, something they’ll keep pursuing.

“It’s something we’ll push all political parties to endorse—education is a non-partisan issue,” he said. “Endorsing universal education would be good for any party.”

Barkman also pointed out that “resolutions at conventions are not necessarily what parties hold on to at election time,” which is all the more reason to “continue to push for parties to endorse (free tuition) when it really counts.”

Any positivity over that development was short-lived, however, as the sitting Progressive Conservative government introduced legislation Monday that would raise the cap on student fee increases from that of inflation to inflation plus five per cent.

“Many students who saw this happen in real time (at the legislature Monday) were so angry and upset about these fee increases… it’s a step backwards,” Barkman said. “This is something we’re pushing hard against.”

A statement from the provincial government explained the bill would “ensure that Manitoba universities are able to provide a quality education while keeping tuition rates the lowest in Western Canada.”

Barkman explained that even with Manitoba’s low tuition rates, average debt is still $19,000 in the province, and the generation graduating today is “the most indebted generation in history.”

As such, he said they will explore every possible avenue to “step into the process and prevent this bill from passing.”

Changes would come into effect for the 2018-19 academic year if passed, and would also enable universities “to set tuition at rates that better reflect the cost of delivering programs,” remove the “unnecessary processes to review course-related fees,” and allow the province to “deduct a portion of the grants to universities” if average fees are not the lowest among western provinces. 

In an emailed statement, University of Winnipeg president and vice-chancellor Annette Trimbee said the post-secondary institution is "deeply committed" to providing high-quality, accessible education.

"We don’t have all the answers today: most importantly we need to know how the province’s student aid program changes will help low-income students, and what annual grant the province will provide towards our operating budget," the statement read.

- With files from Lucy Scholey

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