This is a momentous year for Aurora College’s several-year transformation into a degree-granting polytechnic university as the single largest number of objectives – 44 – will be pursued in 2021.
Of the 106 milestones in the process, 26 were completed as of mid-February, 27 were in progress and 53 were yet to begin.
One of the pivotal agenda items for this year is setting the stage for the reintroduction of board governance. The Aurora College board of governors was suspended in June 2017 and replaced by an administrator.
“We need to make sure that the incoming board is properly supported, that the institution is ready to move in a new direction,” said Dr. Chris Joseph, director of Aurora College Transformation with the Department of Education, Culture and Employment.
Many of this year’s 44 goals pertain to meeting national standards and best practices across different spheres.
The progress can be tracked on a website that the Department of Education created: https://www.ece.gov.nt.ca/aurora-transformation/en/transformation-progress-tracker
Joseph said there has been “tremendous progress” made over the past year, citing in particular the release of a transformation implementation plan in October 2020. That document sets out 21 integral developments in sequence – over three phases – to be achieved in the coming years.
Initial focus areas for polytechnic programming were also defined: skilled trades and technology; earth resources and environmental management; Northern health, education and community services; and business and leadership.
“We’re definitely on track to meet the government’s commitment to transform Aurora College into a polytechnic university… in May 2025,” Joseph said confidently, acknowledging that he was reluctant to provide a firm date a year earlier.
“A lot of the work that’s been undertaken over the last 12 months has been around understanding what we need to do – the order and the timing of those critical milestones in the transformation process,” he said, adding that a three-year strategic plan running until 2023 also provides a foundation and is available to the public.
“There’s a lot of work to be done in the meantime. There’s a lot of collaboration that needs to be done between our partners and stakeholders, both inside the college and outside the college,” he said.
Joseph noted that engagement has been ongoing since 2017 with faculty and staff, Indigenous governments and industry partners.
The Dene Nation sent Degrees of Success a statement in regard to the development of the polytechnic university. It reads:
“It is important that any development of a polytechnic institute in the North are Indigenous staffed, led, and include education system embedded with content that reflects Indigenous values and beliefs. Furthermore, supplemented by Indigenous cultures, values and content – with little to no co-creation or representation.
“(Last) summer, Denendeh’s leaders and educators came together at the Dene Nation Education Summit. Over the course of the summit, they made their voices clear that there is an urgent need to reform the education system to create long-lasting systemic change. To do this, we require Indigenous leadership and representation embedded within the education system itself.
“The status quo does not serve our people, it simply continues to contribute to the deepening void between Indigenous students and non-Indigenous students. The Dene Nation is committed to being a true partner in the development of the institute dismantle the colonial structures of the existing education system, in order to give way to a brighter and more prosperous future for Indigenous students across the NWT.”
Coping with Covid
The Covid-19 pandemic has been “taxing” for staff and students, but it has also shown the resilience of Aurora College’s three campuses and 21 community learning centres, Joseph said.
The immediate need to transition to remote learning “almost overnight” did temporarily push the polytechnic transformation process to the back burner, he acknowledged.
“What we learned is that this institution has an incredible capacity to change, to chart a new course for themselves and dedicate themselves to basically those core principles of student success, excellence in teaching, excellence in research and do it in a way that’s collegial and unifying across the institution, so it was inspiring,” said Joseph.
The pandemic has caused delays in the reviews of the suspended teacher education and social work programs, however.
The location of the polytechnic’s headquarters – situated in Fort Smith for decades – is still not clear. Joseph once again committed to three strong campuses. He described Fort Smith as the “seat of administration,” Yellowknife as hosting a strong nursing program and Inuvik is the site of an excellent business program as well as cutting-edge research.
The NWT university will increase access to educational programming in every NWT community, according to Joseph. That will also mean improvements in digital infrastructure and an adequate number of staff on the ground with the requisite equipment and facilities. He wasn’t yet prepared to trot out numbers associated with those objectives, however.
“We don’t want to limit ourselves by staffing numbers, by funding formulas at this stage,” he said. “That’s why part of the mantra of the transformation is doing everything in the right order at the right time.”
The transformation team within the Department of Education amounts to nine employees while Aurora College has 50 staff seated on four different working groups.