In his 2014 book, Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education, Henry Giroux described neoliberalism as: “an attack undermining all forms of solidarity capable of challenging market driven values and social relations, promoting the virtues of an unbridled individualism almost pathological in its disdain for community, social responsibility, public values and the public good”

This pretty much describes the raison d’être of Premier Brian Pallister. He’s been systematically hacking away at our public institutions since first elected in 2016. Pallister’s attack on universities started early.  His plan is pretty much laid out in this KPMG report.

In the 2017 budget Brian Pallister made university more expensive for students by cutting tuition income tax rebates and introducing a bill that would eliminate caps on tuition increases. In the 2018 budget Brian Pallister effectively cut funding to universities by 1 percent. His government did that again in 2019 and 2020. But in addition to funding cuts in 2020, it became clear that there was something more sinister going on.  After re-election in 2019, Brian Pallister’s eliminated the Department of Education and Training and reassigned responsibility of  postsecondary education to a new department called Economic Development and Training.

In 2020, universities were issued mandate letters directing them to align more closely with industry to “ensure programs meet workforce needs…and meet the demands of our ever-evolving world of work.” More closely linking university programming to labour market needs is a bright red flag for anybody concerned with the narrow view that education should be solely  “occupationally useful” rather than a public space “where knowledge, values, and learning offer a glimpse of the promise of education for nurturing public values, critical hope, and a substantive democracy.

Corporate influence has long been visible at Canada’s public universities, but Brian Pallister has kicked things up several notches with his aggressive plan to control what universities do. For some strange reason Brian Pallister has been emboldened to put the screws to universities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In April, the Premier called on his Minister of Economic Development and Training to direct Manitoba universities and colleges to find between 10 and 30 % in “savings”. This was needed, said Pallister, to help cover the costs of the pandemic. We “all need to do our part” he says.

That directive was broadly criticized across the political spectrum. Despite Pallister’s suggestion that universities were not needed during the pandemic, faculty and staff are working harder than ever, do their part to accommodate a rise in spring enrollments and a shift to online learning methods.

In May the Premier backed off, at least in the short term.  After cutting 2020 funding to postsecondary institutions by, for example, an additional 3.7 percent in the case of the University of Winnipeg and 5% at the University of Manitoba, the Minister advised these same institutions that they can now apply for a grant for the amount cut, IF they can make the case that there is a need resulting from COVID-19. A strange turn of events, but universities already overburdened as they try to adapt to online learning platforms will do what is needed to jump through this new hurdle.

In May the Premier did something else that raises more serious concerns.  He appointed a  Premier’s Economic Opportunities Advisory Board, tasked with “charting the course for Manitoba’s reopening and growing the economy”.  The mandate notes the Board will look for  “a further alignment of post-secondary programs and courses with the province’s labour market needs and priorities.

There are no university educators on the board.

As described by Manitoba Organization of Faculty Associations in the Winnipeg Free Press (May 27, 2020) : 

the amount of government interference in postsecondary in recent weeks has been “deeply disturbing.” Forbes said he’s convinced the province is up to two things: cutting funding for higher learning and taking greater control of post-secondary programming… “This portrays a misunderstanding of what universities are supposed to do; it’s much, much more than teaching kids how to use Microsoft Excel for the latest job opening,” Forbes said, adding universities teach critical thinking and leadership skills.”

There is currently legislation in place that might make it more difficult for Brian Pallister to dictate what universities do. The Advanced Education Administration Act states that the role of the Minister includes:

2 (1) (d) respects the appropriate autonomy of educational institutions and the recognized principles of academic freedom.

2 (4) describes the Ministers mandate is: to advise and assist

But the Premiers intentions to turn universities into something that they were never intended to be is clear and he’ll find ways to work around legislation. Or perhaps change it. In addition to provincial funding, Canadian universities rely on federal transfers through the Canada Social Transfer.  However, there are few ‘rules’ in place that provinces must follow as to how that money is spent.

Defenders of universities as places where students can learn for the sake of learning have a tough fight ahead. Liberal arts education is particularly vulnerable. While the Premier might not be able to tell universities what they can do, he can starve them of resources, forcing them to make difficult choices. He is doing that now and this is a direction all Manitobans should be concerned with.

Brian Pallister recently defended his direction saying that “university professors have an Ivory Tower attitude counterproductive to the rest of Manitobans.”

To this we would say, Premier Pallister’s definition of “productive” is narrow minded, short sighted and most definitely won’t make Manitoba the “most improved province” that he likes to boast about.

As described by University of B.C president and medical biologist Santa J. Ono, “education without liberal arts is a threat to humanity”