Review proposes transforming Aurora College into polytechnic university

A highly-awaited review of Aurora College that got underway last year has now been released, and it recommends that the college be transformed into a Northern Canada polytechnic university.

143-page document recommends new institution that could grant degrees

N.W.T. Education Minister Caroline Cochrane today announced the recommendations of the highly anticipated review of Aurora College. (Kirsten Fenn/CBC)

A highly anticipated review of Aurora College begun last year has now been released, and it recommends Aurora College be transformed into a Northern Canada polytechnic university.

The 143-page document includes 67 recommendations on everything from governance to accountability, academic program management, operations, and the recruitment and retention of students, with an emphasis on changing the territory's vision for post-secondary education.

To do that, the report suggests the N.W.T. should convert Aurora College, over the next six to eight years, into an institution that would "combine select elements of a baccalaureate and applied studies institution, a polytechnic institution, and a community college."

The report suggests the polytechnic university should continue offering programs Aurora College already does — such as academic upgrading, apprenticeships, certificates and diplomas — but also grant degrees.

The main campus would be built in Yellowknife, and "more highly qualified people will be attracted to teach at [the polytechnic university] and live in the N.W.T.," the report states.

No estimate on cost

"I'm ecstatic," said N.W.T. Education Minister Caroline Cochrane. "I think that this a long time coming, and I'm really excited that this review actually has some recommendations — not only complaining about what we aren't doing right, but where we need to move forward."

Cochrane said the recommendations are feasible, but there's no hint in the report about how much it would actually cost to establish a university in Yellowknife.

The government is expected to provide its response to the recommendations sometime this fall.

MLAs react to review

Some people were surprised by the scope of the review and its proposal to establish a polytechnic university.

Yellowknife Centre MLA Julie Green worries the recommendations still leave the college with the task of trying to be "all things to all people."

MLA Julie Green says the proposal to establish a Northern Canada polytechnic university in Yellowknife is "ambitious." (CBC)

"I'm concerned that by including all these different streams of diplomas, certificates, degrees and so on, there will still be a challenge in funding all these different parts and having them meet the quality assurance standards," said Green.

There are also a lot of requirements to consider if the government does move forward with a polytechnic university, she said.

"It's massive, and the timing is very ambitious," said Green. "I just think that … the scale of it is so far beyond where we are now."

As for how this review of Aurora College will be different than all the rest, Nahendeh MLA Shane Thompson couldn't say.

He is, however, optimistic about the education minister's willingness to work with MLAs on the file.

"That's new," he said. "And I think if we do this right … this is for the next four or five generations down the road that we could be doing things right. So, I think that might be something positive."

Social work, teacher programs remain in limbo

Meanwhile, intake to the social work and teacher education programs at Aurora College remains suspended.

"There's something wrong with those programs," said Cochrane, adding they will be reviewed within the next year. "They are our number one priority. I'm not willing to reinstate them at this point … we need to make sure they're done right."

All the programs currently in place at Aurora College will continue.

Another priority is hiring a new president to lead the college, after Jane Arychuk recently resigned for what Cochrane called "personal" reasons.

"We will be going across Canada to look for a strong leader," said Cochrane.

Review expected to come in over budget

The N.W.T. government called for a review of the college last year, after a backlash against proposed cuts to the school's social work and teacher education programs.

According to the review's terms of reference, it was to evaluate and make recommendations on the operations and governance structure at the college while review programming at the same time.

The Edmonton consultancy firm MNP LLP conducted the review. The initial contract for the work was worth $412,620, according to the territorial government.

The final cost is expected to come in higher.

The government said extra costs were incurred to extend the engagement period for the review, and for contractor travel.

Here are a few of the 67 recommendations:

  • Education department should assume "higher education governance role" at the polytechnic university for next six to eight years.

  • Hire a deputy minister of higher education to help open the polytechnic university by 2024.

  • Introduce a more appropriate and arms-length governance body at the institution.

  • Come up with a five-year plan for the college.

  • Develop frameworks for program development and review, which would require programs to be examined every five years.

  • Make it a priority to review the social work and teacher education programs at Aurora College.

  • Partner with a credible institution in Alberta, B.C. or Saskatchewan to set up a polytechnic university.

  • Enhance student experience for trades and apprenticeship courses to increase attraction and recruit future students.

  • Locate the main campus, president and leadership offices in Yellowknife.

  • Develop a communications plan, including a new brand and logo.

  • Identify where to attract students from, and assign adequate resources toward student attraction, recruitment and marketing.

  • Improve career planning support for students.