The NWT’s education minister says youth told her “let us be mobile” as her department decides how the territory’s post-secondary education should look in future.
Caroline Cochrane said that may mean ditching the “old ideology” of buildings and campuses, while doing more to expand and improve internet access.
Cochrane spoke as she presented a document outlining the NWT’s vision and goals for its post-secondary education over the next 10 years – decisions which she said had been “informed by more than 740 voices from all regions of the Northwest Territories.”
Feedback was wide-ranging, the minister said.
For example, while some students in Aurora College’s three main communities of Fort Smith, Inuvik, and Yellowknife said they did not necessarily want to move elsewhere for their education, others wanted to move out-of-territory or even leave Canada to explore opportunities.
“Students want to have options and we need to make sure that we respond to them,” Cochrane said on Wednesday.
The document, called a strategic framework, is meant to help shape the transformation of Aurora College into a polytechnic university.
Twenty-five percent of surveys contributing to the document’s conclusions were filled out by people aged under 30. The resulting document sets out a vision and five goals.
The vision states that residents of all NWT communities should have the same chance to receive a post-secondary education.
Among its goals, the document says student success must come first and students should have more options.
Asked about the Aurora College foundational review’s recommendation that a new polytechnic university be headquartered in Yellowknife, Cochrane said she was thinking beyond that concept.
“The whole idea of having a brick-and-mortar campus, is that a little bit old?” she asked. “Is that an ideology that we’re so used to within post-secondary, that it has to be bricks and mortar?
“We’re in a day of technology. The whole idea of a headquarters… maybe we need to stop that conversation and start looking at how we work with our post-secondary education so that it meets what’s happening today in technology, and what the future is going to look like.”
While there are some limits to internet availability and capacity in the NWT, Cochrane said her department was examining the expansion of bandwidth for JK to Grade 12 classes in order to offer improved distance learning. Part of her long-term vision, Cochrane added, is to strengthen the 22 community learning centres across the territory.
The document released on Wednesday acknowledges access to post-secondary education has not been equitable in the past, especially for “Indigenous residents from the territory’s smallest communities.”
Furthermore, the document states, students must have the necessary skills to take advantage of post-secondary opportunities – meaning improvements are required at all levels of primary education.
The document’s third goal asks how the NWT’s post-secondary system can help fill vacancies in the NWT, suggesting anywhere from 28,500 to 36,700 openings in the territory will emerge in the next 11 years, and most of those will require post-secondary education.
The NWT faces several challenges in its labour market, the document states, including a large number of residents on the verge of retirement as well as parts of the working-age population “under-educated, under-skilled, and unprepared” to take advantage of the jobs available.
Goal four, to remain responsive to local and regional needs, requires the territorial government to keep engaging with Indigenous governments and communities. With self-government proceeding in several regions, Cochrane said, including these communities becomes increasingly important.
The fifth and final goal asks how post-secondary in the NWT can help to solve northern challenges. The minister gave the study of climate change as an example.
“This will allow us to not only access research dollars, but also to keep that knowledge in the North,” she said. “Research by northern people, for northern people, that will stay in the North.”
Cochrane said in July Aurora College’s transformation into a polytechnic will likely take five or six years.
The next step is production of a slightly delayed strategic plan for Aurora College, designed to shape how that transition will take place.
Cochrane expects more public engagement on the issue after the fall territorial election.
“Hopefully we’ve made a really strong indent, we’ve broken the ground,” she said. “I think that the polytechnic university will be a major focus in the next government. My hope is.”