Halted social work program at Aurora College should be expanded, report suggests

MLA Julie Green filed an access to information request in order to obtain the report that was completed six months ago. She says the Department of Education refused to share it with her.

MLA Julie Green filed access to information request in order to obtain report completed 6 months ago

'This is a report that is generated with public money in a public institution, so there was no reason in my mind why this should not be made public,' says Julie Green, MLA for Yellowknife Centre. (CBC)

The major recommendation stemming from a 60-page review of Aurora College's social work diploma program is to expand it into a bachelor of social work program.

The review was completed in April.

It was released to the public Tuesday by Yellowknife Centre MLA Julie Green. She filed an access to information request in order to obtain it, after she says the Department of Education, which commissioned the report, refused to share it with her.

The review lists several program strengths and concludes it should be expanded to offer a bachelor of social work. (Randi Beers/CBC)

"This is a report that is generated with public money in a public institution, so there was no reason in my mind why this should not be made public," said Green.

In February 2017, then-education minister Alfred Moses announced his department was cutting Aurora College's teacher and social work programs. At the time, he said the college was facing budget cuts and these two programs were targeted because of their low enrolment and completion rates.

The decision caused a backlash, and Moses instead put it on hiatus pending a review.

Aurora College also recently underwent a review of its own. The recommendations from that, which include that it should be expanded into a polytechnic university, were released in May.

Green says the Department of Education previously said it planned to wait for the Aurora College foundational review before making any decisions about the social work program.

Now, months after both reviews have been completed, she wants to know why there has been no movement on these issues.

"There are still a couple instructors at the college and I would like them to stay in place to work on the re-development of this program rather than have them laid off and the program completely shut down," said Green.

'A unique program'

"Almost every review participant spoke to the need for a [bachelor of social work] program," states the review, which was put together by Crowe Mackay LLP.

It lists a number of strengths, including that all instructors have a masters of social work and have practised in the N.W.T.

"Almost everyone interviewed commented on the dedication and quality of the instructors," states the review.

Almost everyone interviewed commented on the dedication and quality of the instructors.- Aurora College social work diploma program review

The curriculum is tailored specifically for the North — there are Indigenous-specific courses and the program allows students to hear directly from elders.

In fact, according to the review, Aurora College "provides a unique program that does not appear to be duplicated anywhere else."

The Aurora College campus in Fort Smith. (Priscilla Hwang/CBC)

Most colleges that provide a social work diploma don't qualify a student to call themselves a social worker once they graduate. The Northwest Territories government, however, has special legislation that allows graduates of Aurora College's social work diploma program to become licensed social workers in the territory.

This, according to the report, is valuable for the North, because social work positions in the N.W.T. are some of the most in demand.

Low completion rates

The review highlights concern over the high number of students who withdraw from the program due to academic failure.

It points to a flaw in the diploma program as a reason for this — because of the way it's tailored, first-year students are expected to take third- and fourth-year courses.

"This would be challenging for any student," states the report.

Expanding to a bachelor program could help alleviate the high withdrawal rate, according to the review, because it would require higher standards for admission, and it would allow students to take higher level courses when they are more prepared for them.

So what's the hold up?

Pam Coulter, a spokesperson for the education department, said program reviews are normally meant to be internal documents, and aren't usually released to the public.

"Typically, if a review is released to the public, it would be accompanied by a response," she stated.

Coulter said Aurora College is waiting on two things before responding to the report — the addition of a new associate deputy minister for post-secondary education renewal, and the N.W.T. government's response to the review of Aurora College.

"We recognize that any citizen has the right to request documents produced by, or for, a public agency such as Aurora College," stated Coulter. "But would like to note that the college should be provided the opportunity to consider, develop and consider [its] response to the document."

Green says she'll be putting pressure on the Department of Education to act on the report's recommendations during the next sitting of the N.W.T. Legislative Assembly, which starts Thursday.