The Northwest Territories committed to creating a polytechnic university but kicked down the road any real decision about where.

In its highly anticipated response to May’s Aurora College Foundational Review, NWT leaders accepted the review’s main recommendation that the college become a university.

However, the territory took every available opportunity to distance itself from the review’s equally weighted recommendation that the university’s main campus be in Yellowknife, instead stating “the new institution will continue to function with a three-campus model” featuring Fort Smith, Yellowknife, and Inuvik.

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“If and where a ‘main campus’ will be assigned will not be decided at this time,” the government’s response read – one of several key areas in which decisions were deferred until more planning can be done.

The 92-page document, which took five months to compile, articulated a vision in which Aurora College will undergo gradual metamorphosis rather than a separate university be founded.

May 2018: Our report on the original Aurora College review
Fort Smith: Why residents and town councillors are concerned
Yellowknife: City’s excitement for a university

The response contained no timeline of substance and no analysis of the university’s potential cost, with the territory stating this was “not a business case, nor a capital plan [but] an assessment of our needs and a proposal of how we can best meet those needs.”

Instead, the response set out a series of more than 30 further plans and reviews to be completed before a full picture of the territory’s post-secondary future can emerge.

The lengthy to-do list includes a strategic plan and a capital plan. With those nowhere near completion, the territorial government said it could not commit to the independent review’s recommendation of building a new campus from scratch.

“Aurora College requires significant change,” Caroline Cochrane, the education minister, told the legislature on Friday.

“A polytechnic university combines the practical approach of a college education and the depth of study associated with a university program.”

At a glance

The territory’s newly published official response:

  • Promised to turn Aurora College into a polytechnic university by September 2024;
  • Said the process would be gradual and “fiscally responsible”;
  • Refused to name a “main campus” and said there may never be one, instead pledging to maintain indefinitely the current three-campus model (rejecting a key recommendation of the review);
  • Didn’t provide any costings or a detailed timeline, saying that wasn’t the response’s job;
  • Listed more than 30 plans or similar documents that’ll be necessary, many of which appeared to be required before work can really start;
  • Pledged to create two advisory bodies to help a new post-secondary leader, once that person is appointed;
  • Promised the university will be allowed to operate at arm’s length, admitting the territory had failed to ensure this with Aurora College; and
  • Said work to figure out the cost of the university may take until after the next election.

These points are discussed in detail below. You can read the government’s full response here.

Incremental change

Aside from its basic agreement that a polytechnic university should be created, the government’s response was procedural rather than transformative in terms of actions proposed – which the territory attributed to “incremental steps” recommended in the original independent review.

Indeed, Friday’s response explicitly pledged the government will “incrementally transform” Aurora College into a university. The independent review’s original deadline for this to be completed – the start of the 2024-25 academic year – was retained.

The territory said a detailed series of milestones outlining how that deadline will be met would only appear once “an NWT-wide vision for post-secondary education” had been created, a process to be led by a person not yet hired and for which no timeline was published other than terming it an “early priority.”

In May’s original review, consultants MNP expressly warned against watering down their findings and adopting a program of incremental change.

“The transformational recommendations found in this report embody a set of breakthrough ideas,” MNP wrote at the time. “The risk, of course, is allowing them to be whittled down.

“Will the outcome of an incremental or safer route lead to the creation of a higher education system in the NWT that meets the diverse needs of students, employers, industry and both the Indigenous and non-Indigenous residents of the territory?

“The assertion of this foundational review is that it will not.”

No main campus

While the university’s lack of a clearly defined physical focal point afforded the Town of Fort Smith – which had feared losing Aurora College’s headquarters and dozens of jobs – some relief, it also appeared to leave the three affected communities little better off than they were in terms of understanding their future role.

The City of Yellowknife on Thursday told MLAs it could deliver the “economies of scale” needed to host a university, and expects to publish a feasibility study next month assessing its readiness to become a university hub. But the government’s response fell significantly short of some visions for a freshly developed university campus in Yellowknife.

Instead, the territorial government pledged to revamp Aurora College at “a more gradual rate of change compared to developing an entirely new institution.”

Implying the City’s concern over where it might put a new university building is essentially redundant, the government’s response read: “The transformative process will build on existing Aurora College infrastructure, programming, and human resources over an extended period of time. This will allow for a fiscally responsible rate of growth.”

An external view of Aurora College's Fort Smith campus in winter, photographed by the Taylor Architecture Group
An external view of Aurora College’s Fort Smith campus in winter, photographed by the Taylor Architecture Group.

The territorial government said each of the three communities’ campuses will become centres of specialization, though the specialist areas will be decided at a later date.

“To the greatest extent possible, negative short-term social or economic impacts resulting from the transformation of Aurora College will be avoided,” the response stated.

“Over the long term, it is hoped that the establishment of a polytechnic university will create opportunities for growth in staff and students at each campus and expanded economic opportunities for all three campus communities.”

Arm’s length?

The territorial government said it accepted or, at least, partially accepted all 67 of the MNP review’s recommendations – though its decision not to promptly name Yellowknife the main campus was a clear rejection of a key recommendation, while some other answers were difficult to characterize as acceptance.

For example, in “partially accepting” a recommendation about improving security for students in Fort Smith, the government response took time to say the review had been unfair, unrepresentative of students’ experiences, and bad at finding students to even talk to.

“However, we agree that the safety of students and staff is a paramount concern,” it continued, in order to demonstrate partial acceptance.

Addressing a significant criticism levelled at the Department of Education, Culture, and Employment by the Town of Fort Smith and Aurora College insiders, the government response promised to work toward a more “arm’s-length” operational model for the university.

The department has been accused on multiple occasions of unnecessary and detrimental interference with college governance, including the allegation that department staff twice interrupted the college’s process of developing a strategic plan, only for MNP’s review to then upbraid the college for outdated planning.

“Aurora College has been expected to operate at ‘arm’s length’ from government, but this has not been achieved,” Friday’s response conceded.

“Establishing an accountable, transparent and effective institution will rely on the appropriate relationship with government. In particular, it is increasingly evident that Aurora College must be empowered to function at ‘arm’s length’ in its operations and strategic decision-making,” it continued.

“We remain committed to ensuring that, during the transformation of Aurora College into a polytechnic university, the new institution is able to maintain the appropriate level of operational and strategic independence going forward.”

The territory expressed a desire to return to a board of governors as soon as was practicable. Aurora College has operated without a board since the territory replaced it with an administrator in 2017.

Listing its next steps, the territory said it would create its new post-secondary vision; appoint someone to lead post-secondary education renewal; make some necessary changes to legislation; establish an advisory committee; establish an academic advisory council; introduce a new way to review the college’s academic programs; and then review the programs.

“More work is needed to clearly identify the capital and operational costs of transforming Aurora College into a polytechnic university,” the response noted, adding it expects that work to continue into the next government following 2019’s territorial election.

With files from Sarah Pruys