Recently introduced legislation that will formally end the Council on Post-Secondary Education will also give Manitoba’s education minister far too much power over university curriculum in this province.
And Education and Advanced Learning Minister James Allum should be ashamed for suggesting otherwise.
Back in March, the Sun learned that the Manitoba government had quietly revealed plans to eliminate COPSE, and merge its existing members with the Department of Education.
Since the council commenced operation in 1997 — it was created by an act of the Manitoba legislature in 1996 — COPSE has acted as an intermediate body between post-secondary institutions, including colleges and universities, and the government. The agency is responsible for reviewing and approving university and college programming while providing advice and “policy direction to the government,” according to its website.
As it currently operates, COPSE is composed of 11 members who are appointed by the Lieutenant Governor in Council, including a chairperson. Minister Allum was a former COPSE chairman.
At the time the Sun reported on this decision, Brandon University political science associate, Prof. Kelly Saunders, said she feared the board’s elimination would 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.”
It would appear her fears were well-founded.
As reported by the Winnipeg Free Press yesterday, Bill 63, officially titled the Advanced Education Administration Amendment and Council on Post-Secondary Education Repeal Act, contains detailed regulations to determine how and if post-secondary schools set tuition, levy course fees and seek possible tuition-cap exemptions for programs declared to be specialized programs.
In every case, the minister will have the final say after consultations.
The bill will also let the minister set a mandate for each university and college — following obligatory consultations — and gives final approval to the education minister for any program of study that a university or college may establish, modify or cease.
“It gives the minister the right to determine the mandate of universities,” Jim Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, said this week. “This trumps all the powers given to the boards, the senates, in the University of Manitoba Act, the University of Winnipeg Act.”
And, we might add, the Brandon University Act.
Before the contents of the bill were made public, at least a few college and university heads suggested the elimination of another level of bureaucracy would be a good move.
“They want to do this to speed things up and take out that layer that the council board created,” Assiniboine Community College president Mark Frison said earlier this year. “We’re happy with anything that makes program approval or regulatory approval faster.”
We understand that point of view — red tape and bureaucratic oversight often slows needed changes to university and college budgets and curriculum. But for the minister to put decisions that until recently have been made by 11 academics solely under his discretion is unnecessary, and poses a danger to academic freedom.
Upon the suggestion that he would be calling the shots on courses or programs, Allum apparently scoffed at the notion. He said he is an academic with a PhD and is committed to academic freedom.
That’s not entirely accurate. Mr. Allum is an elected official in the province of Manitoba, and a high-level minister in the NDP cabinet, not a university professor in an ivory tower.
Even if he is telling the truth, and he has no intention to unnecessarily fiddle with university and college decisions, it’s simply arrogant to suggest that political machinations would have no role to play in his decisions — or any future minister’s decisions for that matter.
It’s an unnecessary power grab, in our opinion, creating a situation ripe for abuse — but to what end, unfortunately we just don’t know.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition May 31, 2014