Brian Pallister’s Progressive Conservative Government has told Manitoba universities to figure out how to cut their budgets by as much as 30 per cent in order to help the province survive the financial maelstrom of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Universities, which have already laid off hundreds of employees, contend they’re trying to manage increased demands from students at a time when many are out of work. The schools say they don’t know how they can operate with reduced funding, never mind prepare the provincial workforce for the post-pandemic economy.
The province gave universities a Tuesday deadline to prepare scenarios for budget cuts of 10, 20 and 30 per cent over the next four months, either by cutting back on their work forces or by reducing other expenditures.
The University of Manitoba, the largest in the province, is “exploring every option” and will respond to the province by Tuesday, said vice-president John Kearnsey, who handles external relations for the school.
Brandon University has laid off some workers and is encouraging other employees to use up banked vacation time or take unpaid leaves, communications officer Grant Hamilton said in a statement. The western Manitoba university is looking at reduced work weeks and work sharing, he said.
Chris Minaker, the University of Winnipeg’s senior executive officer responsible for external engagement, said cuts won’t be easy for his institution to make even as it appreciates the province is trying to contend with an unprecedented economic crisis.
“We understand that and we absolutely want to do our part. From our perspective, though, it is difficult to be able to reduce when the demand for for our services are increasing,” Minaker said in an interview.
“I think the thinking is that since the physical campus is closed, there must not be as much need for staffing and for expenditures. That’s not necessarily true though, in our case, because we’re as busy as we’ve ever been.”
Manitoba universities are helping students complete their winter courses and are conducting online exams while they prepare to conduct spring courses online and plan for a fall semester that may or may not involve classroom teaching.
“We don’t necessarily know what the fall is going to look like. We hope for a resumption of in-person operations, but it might be a hybrid, whereby some classes are through alternate deliveries and some classes are just in a smaller setting,” Minaker said.
Brandon University may not have actual classes in the fall, Hamilton said. The University of Manitoba’s Kearnsey did not state his institution’s plans.
In a statement, Manitoba Economic Development and Training Minister Ralph Eichler, who is responsible for post-secondary education, said the province is under immense financial pressure and faces difficult decisions as a result.
“We will continue to regularly work closely with post-secondary institutions on how best to address these challenges and meet the unique needs of each institution,” Eichler said in the statement.
Universities are not alone in being asked “to do some scenario planning for the workforce for the immediate future as we, collectively, recover from the pandemic,” he said.
Professors pan cuts
Unions who represent university professors and instructors slammed the proposed cuts.
Scott Forbes, a University of Winnipeg biologist who serves as the president of the Manitoba Organization of Faculty Associations, called the proposed cuts draconian and said they would result in permanent damage to universities.
“These institutions take decades to build. Once you fire a bunch of people, it will take decades to rebuild that capacity. If it can be rebuilt at the end of this fiscal year, you will have institutions which don’t have the capacity to offer university level programs. It’s that simple,” Forbes said in an interview.
Even short-term cuts will prevent universities from meeting the needs of students, he added.
“The University of Manitoba survives, but is basically an empty shell of itself. Brandon and Winnipeg might survive as two-year colleges, or something like that, but Brandon is right on the very edge right now,” Forbes said.
“They barely make ends meet and even a 10 percent cut will be savage for them.”
Brandon University spokesperson Grant Hamilton said closing the western Manitoba school “is not on the table.”
Students already face reduced courses, job losses
Forbes said the cuts could not come at a worse time for students, who are already facing reduced course offerings this spring.
“The students are the worst affected of almost any segment in society. They were left out in Mr. Trudeau’s first tranche of economic support,” he said.
“Students have the highest rate of unemployment of any demographic group and universities, during economic storms are shelters. Student enrolment goes up when unemployment rates go up.”
“What Mr. Pallister is proposing to do is to demolish the storm shelter.”
Universities as post-pandemic economic drivers
Manitoba universities are also touting their roles in restarting the provincial economy once the pandemic eases, as well as helping various sectors of the economy pivot toward new modes of operation.
“There is certain to be intense demand for training and reskilling, as well as increased health care demand, and we are readying to meet that demand,” Hamilton said.
Brandon University’s disaster and emergency studies department and its rural development institute “are poised to play a vital role in building Manitoba’s recovery,” he added.
The province will need educated workers to capitalize on economic growth after the pandemic, said Minaker at the University of Winnipeg.
“We think that now is the time that we should be doubling down on education and we should be preparing for a strong rebound,” he said.
Eichler said he agreed.
“We are working to ensure there continues to be a strong post-secondary education system that can support student success and meet the needs of employers in the future economic recovery period,” he said.
PC government also eyes cuts to workforce, cities, non-profits
The proposed cuts to universities are part of a broad effort by the Pallister government to cut back spending on services it does not consider essential during the COVID-19 pandemic — and reduce the impact of billions of dollars worth of lost revenue.
Last week, the premier proposed reduced work weeks for non-essential workers and asked public-sector unions to help lobby Ottawa to allow government employees to have access to a federal work-sharing program.
The province then gave public-sector unions until this coming Tuesday to declare whether they would support this effort. The Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union said it would not lobby government unless the province identifies what workers would be affected.
The province also suggested Manitoba municipalities ought to cut back on services. On Thursday, Municipal Relations Minister Rochelle Squires sent a letter to all Manitoba mayors, suggesting they “shift resources toward essential services” and “look at examples being set” to manage their budgets.
Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman said on Friday the city is losing $12 million a month as a result of the pandemic.
“Like other provinces, we’re getting no indication from our provincial government that there will be any financial support and in fact, they’re trying to recommend that we cut deeper right now.”
The province has also asked every department to review funding to non-profit service providers, with an eye to cutting back or eliminating its transfers to non-profit organizations whose work it does not deem essential.
Some of those organizations began to receive warning letters about funding cutbacks late last week.
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