At the time, Education Minister Caroline Cochrane sounded fully persuaded by the report – “I’m ecstatic,” she told reporters immediately following its publication – but this week’s announcement will form the entire territorial government’s official response.
In that response, the territory is expected to outline whether or not it will follow the report’s recommendation and shift the NWT’s post-secondary focus from Fort Smith, where Aurora College is presently headquartered, to Yellowknife.
Yellowknife’s politicians have already begun exploring how to accommodate and support such an institution, and City of Yellowknife officials will present to MLAs on Thursday on the subject.
But in Fort Smith, there has been anger at what is perceived as a flawed report recommending unnecessary centralization.
While the report, damning in many places, characterized Aurora College as “an institution of last resort” in the eyes of some students, Fort Smith’s councillors feel the real issue has been longstanding conflict between college leaders and the Department of Education, Culture, and Employment.
There are fears Fort Smith could lose dozens of jobs and suffer a hefty economic penalty if the college’s headquarters are shuttered in favour of a Yellowknife-based institution, even as Cochrane has assured the town some post-secondary presence would be maintained.
At the time of the report’s release, Cochrane said: “It’s not centralization. I think a lot of people are worried about that. It’s about developing centres of excellence, looking at programs that are in each of the communities. What is the specialization within each community and how do we grow on those?
“The City of Yellowknife, Fort Smith, and Inuvik will be vital to this,” she added.
However, there has been no indication as to how much a proposed polytechnic university would cost – leading Fort Smith town councillor Kevin Smith to claim, “We’ve started building a large road without understanding where we’re going or how much it’s going to cost – or who’s going to build it.”
On Friday, the territorial government will be expected to confirm which elements of the independent review it accepts, which path for development it is choosing, how communities may be affected, and the likely cost.
The 140-page report into the college, prepared by Edmonton-based consultants MNP, made clear that the territory would have to have a firm plan in place by this fall in order to complete a renewal of its post-secondary system by the 2024-25 academic year.
In MNP’s intended vision of a polytechnic university, a 10-step timeline beginning this fall would see funding and legislation in place by 2020 and construction commencing in 2021.
However, while Cochrane has appeared intent on creating what she called “a destination post-secondary,” the territorial government could yet decide to do so by backing a revamped facility in Fort Smith.
May’s report dismissed the college’s board as ineffective (it was replaced by an administrator last fall); said the college’s accountability and planning were “clearly lacking”; implied the college had essentially no idea whether some of its programs were working; and said its outdated policies bore little if any relation to actual day-to-day operations.