It's been talked about for years – now a new report says the Northwest Territories should get on with building a university as soon as it can.
An independent report into Aurora College, made available to the public on Wednesday afternoon, said a polytechnic university should replace the college by 2024.
Whether a university actually gets built depends on the territorial government accepting that recommendation – and finding the money – but the education minister sounded 100 percent in favour at a briefing with reporters.
"I am ecstatic," Caroline Cochrane told Cabin Radio. "I think this is a long time coming."
She added: "I want a destination post-secondary. I want it for the residents but I also want people to come here from across Canada and say, 'The NWT? They have the best education in this, and this, and this.'
"This is about the residents of the NWT, our future, our students."
Cochrane said she will work with ministers and regular MLAs to come up with a "whole-of-government" response to the report this fall.
The territory has not yet worked out what the creation of a polytechnic university to replace Aurora College would cost, nor has Cochrane discussed the report with the college's interim leadership following the resignation of its president, Jane Arychuk.
"The first thing we have to do is get the right leader," Cochrane said. "We will be going across Canada to look for a strong leader."
Edmonton-based consultants MNP conducted their review of Aurora College from November to January, interviewing politicians, Indigenous groups, students and staff, community governments, employers and others.
The 140-page report's conclusion was clear: drop the college in favour of a "complete overhaul" by introducing what the report calls the Northern Canada Polytechnic University (NCPU).
"The creation of this polytechnic institution will deliver a world-class education and transform the college into a destination university in the North and for the North," MNP's report summary read.
"NCPU is ... a single transformative institution, complete with select elements of a baccalaureate and applied studies institution, a polytechnic institution, and a community college (i.e. Aurora College). This new institution will serve the NWT's longer-term higher education and applied research needs in a far superior, focused, efficient, effective, and accountable manner."
The report's authors said the word 'university' would be critical to the institution's success.
"Degrees granted by institutions other than universities continue to face credibility challenges," the report stated.
The authors called on the NWT to establish appropriate quality controls in conjunction with a southern post-secondary institution. Those controls allow degrees to be conferred, offering "consistent credibility, greater educational prestige, and curriculum autonomy for the NWT's Indigenous culture."
The report sets out a 10-step timeline, starting in fall 2018, to have NCPU open by the start of the 2024-25 academic year.
Funding and legislation must be in place by 2020 according to that timeline, with construction of NCPU to begin in 2021.
The report says NCPU should be based in Yellowknife, though the campuses in Fort Smith and Inuvik should be maintained. That's a shift from Aurora College's current base of Fort Smith, but Cochrane told reporters she was not concerned by that proposal.
"It’s not centralization. I think a lot of people are worried about that," she said. "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."
The consultants say making Yellowknife the institution's base will ensure its leadership is close to key stakeholders, provide part-time employment opportunities for more students, and attract students through the social life the city offers.
Municipal politicians in Yellowknife have spent years kicking around the idea of establishing some form of university for the city. Most recently, city councillor Julian Morse said earlier this month a university would bring with it residents and jobs.
"My direction [to staff] was call the City of Yellowknife and see if we can work together," said Cochrane on Wednesday.
Morse, responding to the report, posted online: "I am beyond excited about this. The report has exceeded my wildest expectations."
Though the report focuses on its proposal for a university, its initial mandate was to examine Aurora College's governance, programs, operations, accountability, and student recruitment and retention.
In those regards, MNP's consultants suggest the college is facing a litany of serious challenges in its current form.
"The college's present-day leadership, programming, and operations are not adequate to meet the current day challenges and advances in higher education that are happening at an ever-increasing pace," MNP concludes.
The report dismisses the college's board as ineffective (it was replaced by an administrator last fall); says the college's accountability and planning were "clearly lacking"; implies the college had essentially no idea whether some of its programs were working; and says its outdated policies bore little if any relation to actual day-to-day operations.
In an extraordinarily damning statement, the report says Aurora College effectively represents "an institution of last choice" for students.
Critically, many students do not want to go to Fort Smith – largely because of the lack of jobs, lack of a "student experience," and poor student housing.
Above all, the report urges the territorial government to immediately figure out what is going on with the failing education and social work programs at the college, both of which are now suspended.
"They will be the first programs we review," said education minister Cochrane, promising to use an evaluation mechanism provided by the consultants.
"There’s something wrong with those programs. They are suspended and will be reviewed within the next year. We will focus our whole effort on those two programs for the short term.
"My degree is in social work, I know both those occupations are important to residents of the territory. When we have only a few people applying for important occupations, and our graduation rates are really low, that says something."
Centres of excellence
For consultants to unequivocally recommend such sweeping change to a northern institution is unusual. Cochrane called the report "one of the best reviews we've done."
Overall, the report outlines 10 steps and 67 individual recommendations the territory should follow to move away from Aurora College and successfully establish a polytechnic university. It urges the territory to decide by this fall whether to press ahead, noting other institutions in areas like Yukon are similarly pursuing polytechnic status.
Speaking to journalists, Cochrane described a vision of NCPU as "centres of excellence ... able to focus what we have already but not being so scattered, and actually having a strategic plan. Centres of excellence versus scattered options."
Declining to discuss Arychuk's resignation ahead of this report's release, Cochrane reiterated: "The report does clearly state the leader has to be very strong to move this vision forward. It means having the assets, experience, knowledge to be able to move forward."
The MNP report is set to cost the territorial government around half a million dollars in total. A separate, internal review into Aurora College is believed to have concluded and its report is with the minister.