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Manitoba government heeds pressure; signals changes to proposed education law

WINNIPEG - Manitoba's NDP government signalled Monday it will back down from proposed changes that critics say would give politicians control over what is taught at universities and colleges.

James Allum, the province's education and advanced learning minister, said he will introduce changes to a bill in the coming days to address concerns raised by faculty members, university officials and students.

"We'll be introducing some amendments imminently that, I think, go a long way to addressing the concerns raised," Allum said.

"We've listened to what they said and we're trying to respond in a manner that's productive and positive and meets their concerns."

The proposed law, put before the legislature in April, is aimed at streamlining the way universities and colleges operate. It would eliminate the arm's-length Council on Post Secondary Education and transfer many of its powers to the minister's office.

It would give the minister's office final approval over "all changes to programs of study, services or facilities proposed by a university or college".

It would also allow the minister to "develop a mandate for each university and college," in part to avoid unnecessary duplication.

The proposed changes faced heavy criticism at public hearings last month. The Council of Presidents of Universities in Manitoba called the move "an infringement on our autonomy." A vice-president of the faculty association at the University of Manitoba said the legislation would make post-secondary "essentially subject to ministerial power."

Student groups complained about another aspect. They would not be represented on a new advisory committee set up under the authority of the minister's office. That concern is to be addressed as well in changes to the bill, Allum said.

The opposition parties accused the NDP government of trying to make major changes without consulting universities and colleges.

"You should expect pushback when you haven't done proper consultation ... and they need to get back to the drawing board and do this thing right," Progressive Conservative Leader Brian Pallister said.

Liberal Leader Rana Bokhari said the bill must be changed to ensure college and university representatives have real input on any decisions.

The legislature is scheduled to rise for the summer June 12, although there is talk of extending the sitting for another week. Allum said Monday he planned to have the bill amended and passed into law before the summer break.

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