Amendment coming to exclude post-secondary student union fees from Manitoba Bill 33

Student union fees levied on post-secondary students in Manitoba will be excluded from new legislation that allows the provincial government to guide tuition and student fees charged by post-secondary institutions.

Bill 33 — the Advanced Education Administration Amendment Act — gives Wayne Ewasko, Manitoba minister of advanced education, skills and immigration, the power to set guidelines on how those institutions charge students. It could also make student fees optional.

“We will be bringing forward an amendment that clearly spells out the fact that this Bill 33 will not have any impact on student unions’ or associations’ student fees, that they approve or disapprove through their student democratic processes,” Ewasko told CBC News.

Student leaders in Manitoba raised concerns about Bill 33 last month, including the potential impact on student services, such as financial aid and employment opportunities, and the viability of student-led initiatives.

Ewasko offered them a technical briefing about the bill, which allowed them to sit with ministry staffers and go through the legislation together, he said.

Yet, the Manitoba Alliance of Post-Secondary Students (MAPPS) — a coalition of the University of Manitoba Students’ Union, University of Manitoba Graduate Students Association and Red River College Students’ Association that represents over 61,000 students — pushed for clearer language in the legislation, Ewasko said.

Ewasko went to his staff to see if a change could be made. The amendment will be brought forward April 13, he said.

The amendment is a win for post-secondary students for two reasons, said Etinosa Osemwota, vice-president of services and support at the University of Manitoba Graduate Students Association, in a news release issued by MAPPS on Friday.

First, it keeps student-led organizations autonomous and allows them to provide their members with services and supports. Second, it shows the government can be receptive to student ideas, said Osemwota.

Minister wants to keep tuition affordable

Another part of Bill 33 could allow the Manitoba government to determine classes of tuition and which programs deserve to see tuition increase.

Some in Manitoba have interpreted such power as political interference. An Ontario court also struck down a provincial bill similar to Bill 33 back in 2019, ruling that the government was interfering in the autonomy of universities.

Ewasko says the aim of that portion of the legislation is to keep post-secondary institutions in Manitoba financially accessible. The province has the third-cheapest tuition costs of all provinces, behind Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador, says Statistics Canada data.

“The biggest part of Bill 33 is to make sure there’s that shoulder-check,” he said.

“We — myself and our government — are committed to keeping our rates at that third-lowest in all of Canada, but at the same time making sure that our programs here in Manitoba are second to none.”

Ewasko does not believe picking and choosing the tuition rates of certain programs will make some seem more financially appealing.

He did say, however, that low tuition rates should create incentive for Manitobans, as well as prospective students throughout Canada and abroad, to be educated here.

Kristin Smith, a representative of the University of Manitoba Students Union for MAPSS, urges the ministry to consult with post-secondary institutions before determining which fees are necessary and which are reduced.

“What we don’t want is harmful unintended consequences from what seems to be well-meaning intentions to make post-secondary education more affordable,” said Smith in the MAPPS news release.