British Columbia

Thompson Rivers University to close 2 regional centres due to low enrolment

Clearwater Mayor Merlin Blackwell and community services provider Jack Keough say the closures of the learning facilities are contrary to the university's legislated mandate to provide education to remote communities.

Leases on facilities in Clearwater and Barriere will not be renewed

Thompson Rivers University says in-person student enrolment in Clearwater dropped by more than 90 per cent this academic year. (tru.ca)

A decision by Thompson Rivers University to close its continuing education facilities in Clearwater and Barriere has community leaders saying the university is neglecting its legislated mandate to serve regional learners. 

The Kamloops-based post-secondary institution said in a written statement to CBC News that it is not renewing leases in Clearwater and Barriere, where its regional centres have been housed for three decades. 

The university has four other regional centres in the Cariboo and the upper Fraser Canyon. All the centres offer vocational education such as business, computer, first aid and forestry courses.

Baldev Pooni, TRU's dean of trades and technology, says the regional centres are closing because of reduced demand for in-person classes and unused rented spaces.

Clearwater Mayor Merlin Blackwell says TRU has neglected its mandate to provide education services to remote communities by shutting down its two regional centres in North Thompson. (Jenifer Norwell/CBC)

In Clearwater alone, enrolled in-person students dropped from 168 in 2018-2019 to just nine in 2020-2021. 

"It looks like for the next nine, 10 months or more that we will not have that face-to-face delivery," Pooni told Shelley Joyce, host of CBC's Daybreak Kamloops.

In 2005, the province introduced the Thompson Rivers University Act, requiring the university — formerly known as Cariboo College and University College of the Cariboo — to serve the educational and training needs of the region. 

Jack Keough, executive director of Yellowhead Community Services, says the closure of the Barriere and Clearwater educational facilities may breach this mandate. 

Jack Keough, executive director of Yellowhead Community Services, says TRU has been gradually cutting course offerings in Clearwater since its local coordinator retired four years ago. (Yellowhead Community Services )

"[We] provide clients and pay for tuition to attend many of these [TRU] courses, so they are either a gateway to get new employment, or they are a requirement of their existing employer to upgrade certain certificates and skills," Keough said.

He says brick-and-mortar facilities are still necessary even though many courses are now delivered online due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Keough says TRU has been gradually cutting course offerings in Clearwater since its local coordinator retired four years ago.

"We knew that unless they filled that position, it was going to be a death by a thousand cuts," he said.

Clearwater Mayor Merlin Blackwell says TRU programs in his community deteriorated when the local coordinator no longer worked in the field to ensure the quality and availability of in-person courses. 

He says TRU has neglected its mandate by closing its regional centres in Clearwater and Barriere.

"When you were created into a university, you still had a mandate to provide the college level programs to our small communities," he said. "We would like the government to step in at some level and help us restore those service levels and those opportunities to residents in rural communities."

The university says it continues to fulfil its mandate by providing courses online that are otherwise unavailable to students in remote communities. It also promises to rent other facilities on short-term leases in Clearwater and Barriere for in-person course delivery.

"The pandemic situation has created opportunities [to] provide education in other ways," said Pooni. 

Blackwell says he plans to team up with other communities in the Thompson-Nicola Regional District next month to write a letter to the B.C. government with their concerns about TRU's reduction of services for rural learners.

With files from Doug Herbert

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