Prior to the release of the 2014 budget last week, the Manitoba government quietly revealed plans to eliminate the Council on Post-Secondary Education and merge its existing members with the department of education.
COPSE acts as an intermediate body between post-secondary institutions, including colleges and universities, and the government, according to its website. The government agency is responsible for reviewing and approving university and college programming while providing advice and "policy direction to the government."
BU president Deborah Poff said she was made aware of the change last Thursday when Manitoba Education and Advanced Learning Minister James Allum met with a group of local university and college administrators as part of a pre-2014 budget briefing.
"He told us that the council was going to be brought back into the department, directly back into the government," Poff said, adding she’s still unclear how the province will replace the board’s function, but Allum mentioned the province is still in the "thinking phase."
Despite few details, Poff said the news wasn’t "worrying."
"I think it will be interesting to see where we go from here," she said. "The minister did tell us that he would be consulting with us, which is reassuring."
The council, comprised of 11 members appointed by the Lieutenant Governor in Council, is responsible for allocating funds to the province’s seven public post-secondary institutions including Brandon University, the University of Manitoba and the University of Winnipeg. COPSE also provides grants to the Canadian Mennonite University and to other private religious insititious in Manitoba including the Steinbach Bible College, Providence University and Seminary and Booth University College.
In an emailed statement to the Sun, a provincial spokesperson said "moving COPSE into the department will allow for post-secondary institutions to be more responsive to labour market needs giving students more opportunities in preparation for the work world, while keeping our education system affordable," adding Allum was also the former chair of COPSE.
"We will be working with the institutions on program approval processes, however, government will maintain regulatory authority."
The spokesperson added the government "has committed to establish an advisory committee to guide the education and advanced learning minister on the strategic direction of the system. Details of the committee will be forthcoming."
Questions regarding whether the board’s elimination would be saving the province any money, or if any of the 11 council members would be retained went unanswered.
BU political science associate Prof. Kelly Saunders said she fears the board’s elimination will end in universities becoming "an arm of the government."
"My fear is that if you get directly under the control of the government then they can be more directive," Saunders said. "We don’t want governments telling professors what they can research."
The loss of the board will also have an affect on BU’s access to the minister, Saunders said.
"Before we had two points of access, council and the minister," she said. "Now we only have the minister to try and explain our case to."
But Assiniboine Community College president Mark Frison said the minister indicated his intention is to "eliminate a layer of bureaucracy."
"They want to do this to speed things up and take out that layer that the council board created," Frison said. "We’re happy with anything that makes program approval or regulatory approval faster."
Progressive Conservative advance education critic Wayne Ewasko said he suspects that without COPSE, post-secondary institutions will be given better access to the minister.
"COPSE’s always been an arm of the government anyways so any time that you can decrease or reduce a level of bureaucracy, I think it’s a good thing," Ewasko said. "But in this circumstance, with this government, they seem to like to micromanage things so I guess we’ll have to wait and see how this all rolls out."
Created by an act of the Manitoba Legislature in November 1996, COPSE commenced operation in April 1997. Its current strategic plan was developed in February 2013 and its final version was approved in March 2013.