North

N.W.T. government proposes polytechnic university specializes in 4 fields

As Aurora College tries to reinvent itself and become a university, the territorial government has proposed the school focus much of its research and teaching on fields that centre the needs of industrial employers.

Trades, technology, mineral resource and environmental management among specializations

A file photo of the main entrance of Aurora College in Fort Smith, N.W.T., in 2018. The N.W.T. government is proposing the future polytechnic university focus much of its research and teaching on fields that centre the needs of industrial employers. (Priscilla Hwang/CBC)

As Aurora College tries to reinvent itself and become a university, the Northwest Territories government has proposed the school focus much of its research and teaching on fields that centre the needs of industrial employers.

The four proposed specializations in a discussion paper released Wednesday are skilled trades and technology; mineral resource and environmental management; business and leadership; and health, education, and community services. 

"In the past, striving to be 'everything to everybody' has limited Aurora College's potential," the document states. "Within an area of specialization, the polytechnic university will be able to build up a base of infrastructure, faculty and resources."

Aurora College president Andy Bevan was not made available for an interview, but a spokesperson sent a statement attributable to him. 

"Specializing in certain areas will ensure the polytechnic university is an effective, efficient and sustainable institution that will prepare northerners to be first in line for in-demand northern jobs," the statement reads. 

The discussion paper cites the changing job market as a significant factor in the proposed long-term specializations for the college, pointing to a territorial labour market study done in 2015.

However, that study only makes projections until 2030. That's merely one year after the university's first four-year degree students would likely graduate. According to the government's foundational review document, if key steps aren't completed on time, the polytechnic university is not expected to start operations until 2025. 

"However, over time, it is anticipated that the polytechnic university will refine and expand these areas of specialization as the needs of northerners and the N.W.T. evolve," Bevan said in the statement.

Specializations 'unexceptional:' former president

Former Aurora College president Tom Weegar, who was fired abruptly in February with little explanation, said he sees "nothing exceptional" in the specializations at hand. 

"We had previously talked about the need for permafrost or northern dynamics and northern studies engineering in Inuvik, and more of a health emphasis in Yellowknife," he wrote in an email to CBC between flights to his new job. Weegar's LinkedIn says he is the soon-to-be chief academic officer of the College of the North Atlantic - Qatar.

Weegar added that there didn't seem to be much information about what expected disciplines the degrees would be in. 

Former Aurora College president Tom Weegar, who was fired abruptly in February with little explanation, said he sees 'nothing exceptional' in the specializations at hand. (Walter Strong/CBC)

Weegar, who will be joining the Doha campus of the Newfoundland and Labrador college as it works toward becoming a polytechnic university, also had concerns about the level of academic independence in Aurora College's governance plan released earlier this month. 

"I am very pleased the college is finally looking to establish an academic council," he wrote. "I had been suggesting this development at the college for the entire time I've been there. But unfortunately, the college's idea for the composition of the academic council is far too top-heavy with administrators."

Weegar said an academic council is ideally made mostly of faculty with only a small number of administrators. He said that decision exemplifies the Education Department and the territorial government's "distrust of faculty."

"They fear faculty running amok and having complete control over the institution."

CBC sent questions to the Department of Education after the college president was not made available for an interview about Weegar's comments, but they were not answered by deadline.

Education Minister R.J. Simpson also declined an interview but his department sent this statement: "Releasing our discussion papers marks the beginning of genuine engagement between myself, Indigenous leaders, stakeholders and the public."

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