The NWT’s new polytechnic university will officially launch in May 2025, the territorial government announced on Thursday, unveiling its plan to implement the transition from Aurora College.
The existing Aurora College will be phased out after a 2018 report found it was not fit for purpose, though some staff disputed that conclusion. The polytechnic university will inherit the same buildings, staff, and students, but will have a new governance model and, the territory says, a new approach.
Thursday’s announcement for the first time placed a precise timeline on the transformation into a polytechnic university.
The NWT government also confirmed the initial teaching areas on which the university will focus.
They are essentially unchanged from a discussion paper issued in September, despite criticism from the City of Yellowknife and, to an extent, the Town of Fort Smith. Those communities host two of Aurora College’s three main campuses.
The chosen areas of specialization are:
- skilled trades and technology
- earth resources (mining) and environmental management
- northern health, education, and community services
- business and leadership
The territory said those were “a starting point” and would evolve over time.
Mayor of Yellowknife Rebecca Alty has said those choices are not ambitious enough to attract students from outside the territory, a demographic considered vital to the university’s financial viability.
More broadly, a theme emerging in the college’s transformation is that those leading it believe they are meaningfully reinventing NWT post-secondary education for a new era, while some outside that process see a regurgitation of existing ideas.
The programming choices are one manifestation of that.
Chris Joseph, the director of Aurora College’s transformation, on Thursday said: “We took a balanced approach between two perspectives. We need to build on existing infrastructure, staff, and expertise, and we need to look at the social and economic needs of the Territories.”
Documents released on Thursday state “unique learning opportunities” will be delivered, attractive to students elsewhere in the world.
Former Aurora College leaders, though, have said the chosen areas of specialization sound similar the range of courses the college has offered for years.
The college has a school of business and leadership, a school dedicated to trades and industrial training, schools of health and human services and education, and a school of developmental studies.
‘Just the initial areas’
Joseph, asked how the university’s courses would be unique, chose two existing Aurora College programs as examples.
He pointed to the nursing program, saying it “has several components that are unique to the Northwest Territories in terms of remote and small-community nursing.”
He also said the college’s environment and natural resource training program allowed students to learn the NWT’s unique regulatory framework, and promised polytechnic courses would be “particularly attractive to students who want to build competencies valuable in other parts of the world – in Indigenous communities, remote communities, and the northern climate.”
Asked in a later interview if Yellowknife and Fort Smith’s criticisms had been taken into account when finalizing the areas of specialization, education minister RJ Simpson acknowledged those areas had “remained relatively the same.”
“Keep in mind, these are just the initial areas. As we move forward, there is always room for change,” Simpson told Cabin Radio on Thursday.
The minister said the teaching areas outlined would ensure the territory could fill positions ranging from senior administrative officers to teachers and nurses.
Important dates identified
Aside from confirming its areas of specialization, the territory on Thursday released the implementation plan designed to steer the transformation from a college to a polytechnic.
Amid a flurry of plans – a three-year strategic plan for Aurora College was only just released – Thursday’s implementation plan is the first to present a detailed timeline of what should happen and when.
One key date is a commitment to re-establish Aurora College’s board of governors by September 2022. The college has been under the control of a government-appointed administrator since 2017.
How that board of governors – and a promised new academic senate – should look has been another point of contention for Yellowknife and Fort Smith. Both municipalities said an initial proposal from the NWT government did not sufficiently elevate Indigenous representation.
The territory has yet to finalize the format of the board and senate.
May 2025 is the anticipated launch date for the polytechnic university according to Thursday’s published timeline, though some parts of the transformation will still be ongoing at that time. The final elements should be wrapped up, the NWT says, by October 2026.
Question of facilities
In the legislature last week, the education minister gave his clearest signal yet that the new university would remain headquartered in Fort Smith.
Beyond that, though, lie questions about how community facilities may be transformed by the arrival of the polytechnic.
The implementation plan stated there would be modification and expansion of existing facilities, without providing details, and new student housing for Fort Smith.
The plan said the territory anticipates “new facilities at the Yellowknife North Slave campus to meet the requirements of current and future programming,” but it isn’t yet clear what form those facilities will take.
Money will ultimately play a part in finalizing those decisions, the plan acknowledged.
“The availability of capital funding is not a direct consideration when assessing needs,” the plan stated, “but it will be a factor in determining how and when those needs will be met.”
Simpson said he hoped Thursday’s release of the implementation plan would be welcomed by community leaders in the likes of Yellowknife and Fort Smith.
“I think the release of the implementation plan is going to go a long way to getting people on board,” the minister said.
“There has been a lack of information, I’ve said it myself. As with everything over the past seven months, there have been delays.
“When the leadership sees this, it’s going to perhaps calm a lot of their fears. There might be a sense that we have already decided what we’re doing, and that’s not the case.”