Aurora College eyeing arm's-length board, polytechnic plans on track, says new president

Aurora College president Andy Bevan says establishing an arm’s-length board to govern the college is one of his top priorities, and he hopes to do it as quickly as possible.

College president Andy Bevan says establishing an arm's-length board will require legislative changes

Andy Bevan, a longtime civil servant, is the president of Aurora College and associate deputy minister of post-secondary education renewal. (Submitted by Andy Bevan)

The new president of Aurora College wants to assure the public that he's working to strengthen his institution's independence from the Education Department — but it's going to take some time and changes to the law.

On Thursday, college president Andy Bevan told Loren McGinnis on CBC's The Trailbreaker, that establishing an arm's-length board to govern the college is one of his top priorities. 

"We hope to be doing that, subject of course to the legislative process, as quickly as we're able," he said, noting it will require amendments to the Aurora College Act. According to that act, the college's board of governors takes direction from the education minister.

Bevan, who is also associate deputy minister of post-secondary education renewal, is a longtime civil servant. His appointment, after former president Tom Weegar was suddenly and haphazardly dismissed in February, was met with concern it would create the perception the Department of Education, Culture and Employment was overly involved in the college. 

Bevan said he expects the board to be in place by mid-to-late 2022, but that it will be temporary and not the governance model used by the planned polytechnic university.

The college's previous board of governors was scrapped and replaced with a single administrator in 2017. At the time, then-minister of education Alfred Moses said he wanted to maintain "stability and continuity" as the college underwent a comprehensive review. That review ultimately recommended transforming Aurora College into a polytechnic university.

Transformation to polytechnic on track

Despite the economic shutdown and unprecedented upheaval caused by COVID-19, Bevan said the college is on track to meet its goal of transitioning to a polytechnic by 2024 — again, subject to "a lot of work being undertaken in the process" and changes to legislation. 

In the next six months this means "really fulsome engagement" on future areas of specialization, facilities, and the college's presence in communities outside of the regional centres, said Bevan.

Aurora College in Fort Smith, N.W.T., pictured in September 2019. In the next six months, Andy Bevin said he plans for 'really fulsome engagement' on future areas of specialization, facilities, and the college’s presence in communities outside of the regional centres. (Mario Di Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

Fall semester will be online, future semesters are unclear

The global pandemic has, however, had a significant impact on the college's immediate future, with programming moving online. 

"We're really pleased that we're able to offer almost all of our existing programming albeit, obviously, in a very different way," said Bevan. 

He said what the second and third semesters will look like is still being worked out and will be based on where the territory is in its reopening plan. 

The college does hope to offer limited face-to-face instruction in November and December for programs that require hands-on learning, said Bevan.

"I do want to assure prospective students, and existing and returning students, that those learning objectives will be met," he said. 

Of course, online learning is challenging for students without easy access to computers and reliable internet.

Bevan said residences will be open and internet will be available there, and the college has acquired a number of laptops for students who don't have computers.

As well, he said, the college is mulling a bursary for students to help offset the costs of home internet. 

"We feel like we're doing as much as we're able," said Bevan. "We are live to that barriers that might exist for certain students around access to technology and to the internet."

Social work and teaching programs still under review

Bevan said the college is still reviewing the social work and teaching programs, which were put on hold in 2017, to determine whether "those programs need to change significantly or whether we need to tinker around the edges."

A goal of the college, and of a polytechnic, is to equip northern residents for the job market, said Bevan. He acknowledged that teachers and social workers are in high demand. 

"I'd probably be over committing if I suggested that we would be able to deliver [those programs] starting in 2022," he said. "But we certainly want to be in a position to make decisions that wouldn't preclude the possibility of bringing one or both of those programs back at that time."

Written by Sidney Cohen based on an interview with Loren McGinnis