Plans for a new NWT polytechnic university are unambitious and won’t attract enough students, the City of Yellowknife has told the territorial government.
In two letters sent to education minister RJ Simpson last month, Mayor Rebecca Alty says proposals set out so far sound essentially identical to the present Aurora College, which the university is supposed to replace.
“A true Aurora College transformation will require new directions and ideas and the proposed approach is not ambitious,” Alty writes.
“It is unclear whether the polytechnic university will truly be different from the existing Aurora College.”
The letters were made public as part of the agenda for a meeting between councillors at City Hall on Monday, where the city’s approach to the new university will be discussed.
The city’s feedback – which was invited by the territorial government as part of a broader consultation – focuses on how the university will be governed and which courses it will offer.
Last month, the NWT government suggested the university should focus on skilled trades, mining, environmental protection, northern health and education, and business management.
Alty, though, said those areas of specialization were “too broad and do not focus on what a polytechnic university should, or could, offer here in the North.”
Her letters summarized the views of a committee created by the city to examine how a polytechnic university could benefit Yellowknife.
As an example, the committee said, choosing not to deliver any social science courses – such as political science, sociology, or social work – would be a “missed opportunity.”
“Such programming would establish a solid reputation for the university,” committee members felt according to the minutes of a meeting held on September 9. “Yellowknife has a large population of public servants and understanding politics is essential.”
Further, the committee argued, the NWT government is proposing that its university focus on teaching trades at the expense of digital technology like coding.
Skilled trades, Alty wrote, are “a major industry [but] this proposed area of specialization is almost entirely limited to technology as it pertains to machinery and the trades.
“Having no technology focus in a place where remote work can bring employment to remote places is a missed opportunity, as even mining is moving toward remote and automated technology.”
City looking to secure economic benefits
Alty said the proposed areas of study would ultimately fail to attract students to the university from beyond the territory – which is considered key to the institution’s financial viability.
The proposed areas “do not describe competitive programming that will attract people to come study in the NWT rather than elsewhere,” the city’s mayor wrote.
“The final product appears to underestimate, rather than celebrate, the academic strengths and opportunities of the Northwest Territories and its people.”
How the rollout of a university is handled could have a significant bearing on Yellowknife’s economic fate.
There is significant pressure on the city to help the polytechnic university succeed, as a well-executed revamp of Aurora College could deliver a new downtown campus and a significant boost to businesses.
More students in Yellowknife would mean more money for the city, more people spending cash locally, and students taking service-industry jobs that some employers find hard to fill.
However, the NWT government has still to formally accept a 2018 recommendation that the new university be headquartered in Yellowknife.
Instead, wary of grave concern beyond Yellowknife that Aurora College’s other campuses – particularly in Fort Smith – could be sidelined, the territory has for years tiptoed around how, precisely, the university will be divided between regions.
Yellowknife has attempted to fill that vacuum by acting as though the establishment of a major downtown campus is inevitable.
A document setting out parts of the city’s vision for a university, to be discussed by councillors on Monday, states the city will “continue to be a champion of a university in Yellowknife with development of a downtown campus.”
The city’s university committee last month urged the mayor and councillors to “lobby as much as appropriately possible for the realization of a polytechnic university,” which the committee said “would be a transformative moment for the residents of Yellowknife.”
Approached last month for an interview about his government’s latest university plans, a spokesperson for Simpson said the education minister would conduct no interviews until a later stage in the consultation, when feedback had been received.
Instead, the territorial government provided a written statement on Simpson’s behalf in which he stressed this consultation was “the beginning of genuine engagement” and all proposals should be considered “early in the process.”
“Together, we have a great opportunity to transform post-secondary education in the NWT for the long term,” Simpson wrote.
Yet Alty and the city contended, in letters submitted on September 14 and 25, that the territory was already missing the mark.
Analyzing the proposed way in which the university would be governed, the city expressed a series of concerns.
The territory has suggested a two-branch model for governing the polytechnic: a board of governors looking after its finances and operations, and an academic senate to oversee aspects of programming and other educational matters.
The board would feature a president, a university instructor, a staff member other than an instructor, a student, and at least eight other members appointed by the education minister.
The senate would feature representatives of the board alongside school chairs, program heads, other staff members, and students.
In its feedback, the city said this structure “lacks clarity” and appeared to give the board too much authority.
“How do these groups work together? It appears to be a top-down, board-dictated relationship [which] negates the importance of the senate and its programming responsibility,” Alty wrote.
“Our preference would be to have a single body senate that would build in all members of the board and individuals from outside the university.”
Alty said a proposal that at least three board members be Indigenous was “insufficient” and guarantees of regional representation needed to be strengthened.
She added: “There is a concern that these board members, appointed by the Department of Education, Culture, and Employment, will be employees of the GNWT and therefore contradict the arm’s-length spirit of governance.” The letter urged that most board members not be GNWT staff.
Lastly, the city complained that the timeline for feedback set by the NWT government was “insufficient to support meaningful consultation.”
Alty said flexibility while the city was working to cope with Covid-19 “was requested but denied.”