Fact Sheet: Bill 2 - Protecting Affordability for University Students?
In the 2011 Manitoba Provincial Election, the NDP promised to create a law that would cap tuition fee increases to the rate of inflation, as well as provide three-year funding commitments as part of the budget process.
Having won the election with the strongest mandate in eighty years, the re-elected NDP government introduced Bill 2, the ‘Protecting Affordability for University Students Act’, to legislate these election promises. Bill 2 would do so by amending the Council on Post-Secondary Education (COPSE) Act – COPSE is the official oversight and funding distribution organization for government-funded universities and colleges in Manitoba.
While well-intended, there are a number of serious problems within the proposed legislation that compromise the government’s ability to protect students from the rising costs of attending university or college.
Bill 2 is being presented as legislation that will protect the affordability of university, however the legislation will still allow for tuition fees to increase by inflation, as well as allow universities to continue using ancillary fees to fund core teaching & research activities.
Moreover, the legislation does not even include all students. College students and international students are altogether excluded from this legislation, while significant loopholes fail to protect undergraduate and graduate students in professional programs.
The Canadian Federation of Students–Manitoba recommends the provincial government amend Bill 2 to create an absolute cap on all fees for all students in all programs in a given year; make three-year funding projections every year instead of every three; and create a system that allows for tuition fee increases below inflation, tuition fee freezes or tuition fee decreases.
Bill 2 commits the government to create a three-year funding projection for every third budget. For example, a funding projection in the 2013 Budget would include funding expectations for 2013,
2014 and 2015. A new three-year funding projection would be included in the 2016 Budget, and would include outlooks for 2016, 2017 and 2018.
Budget projections allow universities to budget more effectively internally, particularly with long-term planning. This helps students’ unions push to avoid short-sighted spending cuts by University administrations based on the unpredictability of government grants.
However, as it stands, the province can choose to not fulfill the projected funding commitments. Bill 2 could be made more effective by making the funding commitments legally binding on the government, and by having the government provide a new projection in each year’s budget that would project funding for the following three years.
How do Tuition Fee Increases Protect Students?
Bill 2 allows universities to raise tuition fees by inflation (measured here as the Consumer Price Index, or CPI). The legislation averages the monthly CPI in Manitoba, as calculated by Statistics Canada, for the year leading up to the provincial budget. There is currently no cap on how high inflation can push tuition fees in a given year, meaning that unexpectedly-high inflation will harm students and their families directly and with little warning.
Unfortunately, universities can still raise tuition above inflation, and worse still, the enforcement mechanism meant to deter universities from doing so only harms students. If a university raises tuition fees faster than inflation, the Bill requires the province to reduce their funding for that year, equal to the amount overcharged on tuition fees. Since the university’s budget would not be affected (a lost dollar of funding would be made up by a gained dollar of tuition fees), students are the ones left with the responsibility of paying for the university’s error. There is also no method under this legislation that allows the provincial government to force tuition fee increases below inflation in any given year. This NDP government in Manitoba did just that with a 10% rollback on tuition fees in 1999 that helped offset the drastic tuition fee increases of the 1990s under the
Progressive Conservative government.
Ancillary fees were used for the first time in Manitoba during the mid-2000s as a way to circumvent the tuition fee freeze. The Manitoba student movement opposed them from the very beginning, recognizing ancillary fees as just another way to increase the cost of university and college without directly raising tuition fees.
The position of CFS-MB is that any ancillary fee that funds teaching or research – directly or indirectly - at the universities should be considered tuition fees and treated accordingly. Bill 2 does allow government the ability to designate a ‘course-related’ fees as tuition fees, making them subject to the inflationary cap described above, but ultimately there is no guarantee in the legislation that a fee will either be considered a ‘course-related’ fee and regulated, or be considered equivalent to tuition fees and made subject to a cap.
Protection for Which Students?
Bill 2 promises to protect affordability for university students. As explained, this protection isn’t what it appears — tuition fees will still increase every year. What’s more is that this legislation does not even offer this minor form of protection for all students. Students in professional programs and international students will still face high fees and high increases with this legislation in place.
Based on the most recent province-wide data, approximately 52.7% of post-secondary students in this province will be left completely unprotected by this legislation. How can the government claim to be protecting students when so many are excluded?
Students in Professional Programs
Bill 2 allows universities to increase fees above the inflationary cap by having certain programs designated as ‘professional’. This distinction is usually used to denote a program where students are taught a specific skill set that enables them for work in a particular profession, such as nursing, law, education, medicine, and social work, to name a few. This designation would allow the university the option of applying for extraordinary tuition fee increases, like the attempt in 2010 to massively increase tuition fees in thirteen programs at the Universities of Winnipeg and Manitoba.
The list of criteria used to determine whether a program can be considered “professional” includes concerns about accessibility and economic considerations to student support for the increase. However, as it is currently worded, the legislation orders the government to assess applications by merely “considering” the list of criteria. This lax language used indicates that - in the absence of any formal statement by the Minister of Advanced Education, or other binding statement – an application may fail to meet all of the criteria but still be approved. As most students who have faced the prospect of potential fee increases know, having a closed-door body making major decisions that potentially cost you hundreds of dollars is a stressful, unfair experience that adds unpredictability to students access to university and can act as a barrier to enrollment the following year.
The legislation doesn’t apply to colleges or college-level programs at universities, excluding thousands of post-secondary students from even the most basic tuition fee protection. Colleges continue
to receive funding increases lower than those received by universities, and yet their fees are less protected than university students.
After a decision by the provincial government in 2002, the differential fees charged to international students were deregulated and began to rise dramatically. Currently, international students pay more than three times what a domestic student pays for the same education and have no way to predict what their fees will be in each year of their program. Bill 2 continues an existing policy of explicit exclusion of
international students from tuition fee regulation. Governments and post-secondary institutions know that high tuition fees are unpopular with students and their families. However, because international students and their families have limited political influence, governments and institutional decision-makers routinely increase these fees every few years, in effect exploiting international students to fill funding gaps or balance university
Moving Forward: How to Improve Bill 2
While the Canadian Federation of Students–Manitoba believes the intent of this legislation is worthwhile, it requires many changes before it can provide effective protection for students and their families.
Recommendation 1: Create an absolute cap on all kinds of fees in a given year – no student should face sudden and substantial increases in tuition fees, regardless of the economic situation.
Recommendation 2: Create an effective system that allows government to implement tuition fee increases below inflation, or even tuition fee freezes or decreases.
Recommendation 3: For ancillary fee regulation to be effective, it needs to clearly prohibit the use of fees other than for truly incidental costs completely unrelated to the core teaching & research mission of the universities.
Recommendation 4: Don’t discriminate between students – students don’t deserve to face massive increases to tuition fees simply because they are taking a college or professional program or are from another country.
Recommendation 5: Require government to make three-year funding projections every year instead of every three, and have those funding projections be binding on government. Predictability leads to more efficient spending for universities and more security for students.
Canadian Federation of Students-Manitoba - http://www.cfsmb.ca