06/05/2014 05:01 EDT | Updated 06/16/2017 01:02 EDT

Manitoba changes bill that universities, colleges have called a power grab

WINNIPEG - Manitoba's NDP government bowed to pressure Thursday and changed a proposed education law that universities and colleges said threatened their autonomy.

Education and Advanced Learning Minister James Allum put forward several amendments to Bill 63, saying he never intended to remove the right of post-secondary schools to govern their own programs and services.

"While the intent ... was to allow the minister a more clearly active role in the system, the point was well-taken and we were happy to accommodate faculties and institutions in their concerns," Allum told the legislature.

When Allum introduced the bill earlier this spring, he said it was aimed at reducing red tape and duplication, while ensuring public money was being well-spent. But school officials and faculty representatives said it amounted to a power grab and could allow politicians to determine which courses could be taught.

The bill does away with an arms-length Council on Post Secondary Education and brings much of its decision-making power into the minister's office.

Originally, the bill said the minister could set a mandate for each post-secondary institution, to avoid duplication and co-ordinate higher learning. That was changed Thursday to say the minister "is to advise and assist" schools into developing their own mandates.

Another change saw a new clause added to the bill that says the post-secondary system "respects the appropriate autonomy of educational institutions and the recognized principals of academic freedom."

A third change sees a new minister's advisory council expanded to eight members from five, to ensure faculty members, school officials, students and others are represented. Students were not guaranteed a spot under the original bill and student groups had complained they were being shut out.

Bill 63 is expected to receive final approval in the legislature later this month. The Opposition Progressive Conservatives said the government should have instead scrapped the bill altogether and restarted from scratch.

"Go back to the drawing board, talk to stakeholders," Tory education critic Wayne Ewasko said.

The legislature is scheduled to break for the summer on June 12, although there is a possibility that an additional week may be added to ensure the passage of dozens of bills that have yet to receive final approval.