Colleges in Red Deer, Grande Prairie may not transition into universities as planned

A provincial review of post-secondary institutions is raising questions about whether Red Deer and Grande Prairie Regional colleges will transition into universities as planned.

Minister queries whether schools should offer graduate programs or conduct more research

Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides said whether or not Grande Prairie and Red Deer colleges become universities is a "question that's still ongoing." (Genevieve Tardif/CBC )

A provincial review of post-secondary institutions is raising questions about whether Red Deer and Grande Prairie Regional colleges will transition into universities as planned.

Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides said the decisions are under review as external consultants McKinsey and Company evaluate how post-secondary education is offered across Alberta.

"Whether or not they need to become a university I think is a question that's still ongoing," Nicolaides said in an interview with CBC last week.

The transformations would be expensive and require changes to the colleges' governance structures, he said. The schools do not need to be classified as universities to be able to grant degrees for programs that Nicolaides approves.

It's a departure from the celebratory mood in 2018 when both colleges announced the former NDP government had granted them permission to make the transition.

The former Grande Prairie Regional College president called the announcement the proudest moment in his career.

Red Deer College hired consultants, sought feedback from hundreds of people, and announced in 2019 it would eventually rebrand itself as Red Deer University.

But as part of a provincial review of the province's 26 post-secondary institutions, McKinsey is recommending the government consider creating superboards to oversee multiple institutions.

Nicolaides likes the idea. He says he'd like the future oversight bodies to find more ways for polytechnics, colleges and universities to work together, and flag unnecessary duplications in the system. They should not add extra layers of bureaucracy, he says.

Amalgamating any schools is also a "no-go" in his mind. That could damage relationships with alumni and donors.

"It has to be done in a way that maintains strong institutional identity, maintains the connection to the community, and allows them to continue to build those important partnerships," Nicolaides said.

Although the government initially asked the contractor to study the viability of institutions, Nicolaides said shuttering any schools is not the goal.

Red Deer College has already held a rebranding exercise and consultations in preparation for transitioning to a university. (Red Deer College)

However, he said he's not convinced the colleges in Grande Prairie and Red Deer need to be universities to best serve their communities. Red Deer College (RDC) is looking at adopting a "polytechnic university" model, he said, to retain trade and apprenticeship programs in demand by local employers.

"If it did transition to a full research intensive university with graduate programs, you may shed some of those programs that are needed by the local community, so I think we have to find the right balance," Nicolaides said.

Instructor sees 'brain drain' from Grande Prairie region

Administrators at both colleges declined interview requests.

In a written statement, RDC president Peter Nunoda said he is awaiting the outcome of the McKinsey review, which is expected to be released in the summer.

"While work continues in our institution behind-the-scenes on program development and other matters relating to our institution's future, we are awaiting the outcomes identified in the Alberta 2030 post-secondary system review to further establish our future direction," the statement said.

The college offers two degree programs, which are a bachelors of applied arts in animation and visual effects and a bachelor of applied arts in film production.

The college has applied to the advanced education ministry for approval of five more bachelors' degree programs, including a bachelor of science in biological sciences, bachelors of science and arts degrees in psychology, bachelor of education and a bachelor of business administration.

Grande Prairie Regional College (GPRC) CEO Robert Murray said in a written statement the college is still developing proposals for degree-granting programs while the provincial review continues.

Ali Al-Asadi, president of the academic staff association at GPRC, said the name and status of the school is less important than its ability to grant degrees.

The college had been offering some degree programs in partnership with other institutions. But psychology instructor Al-Asadi said government funding reductions have led some of those other schools to cancel the partnerships, and the college had to end some degree programs.

Every time a student leaves northwestern Alberta for university or enrols in another institution online, money leaves the community, he said. He calls it a brain drain.

"When a student leaves, very few of them come back."

NDP advanced education critic David Eggen said his former government wanted universities in Grande Prairie and Red Deer to help diversify the economies of those communities and give students more educational options near their homes.

The closest universities for Grande Prairie students are about 450 kilometres away in Edmonton.

Giving the colleges a pathway to become universities was a sign of respect, he said. For the government to consider withdrawing that permission is disturbing, he said.

"I think that it's a mistake. "I think that this government clearly does not value post-secondary education."

McKinsey is contracted until the end of March to evaluate Alberta's system, highlight best practices from other jurisdictions and propose possible reforms.

The government has committed to releasing a plan for the next decade this summer. 


Janet French

Provincial affairs reporter

Janet French covers the Alberta Legislature for CBC Edmonton. She previously spent 15 years working at newspapers, including the Edmonton Journal and Saskatoon StarPhoenix. You can reach her at janet.french@cbc.ca.


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