Skip to content

New polytechnic college being built on a false foundation

Aurora College Foundational Review cover

NNSL Media Pu8blisher Bruce Valpy
NNSL Media Publisher Bruce Valpy

What follows is for the team of people on the polytechnic transformation file, MLAs, and anyone else who cares about education in the North.

It's about the future of Aurora College, more importantly a factual discussion about the deep problems of the past and present.

Certainly, the college needs fixing. Despite the best efforts of college staff in Fort Smith, Inuvik and Yellowknife, enrolment fell dramatically. Two very essential degree programs are stopped dead – social work and education degrees. Enrolment in trades training dropped 36 percent between 2012 and 2017. The general student population declined 26 percent. The president and board have been replaced by GNWT Department of Education staff. The failure of the college to educate Northerners can no longer be ignored.

Aurora College Foundational Review
Aurora College Foundational Review cover

Muddying the waters is the 2017 decision to hire southern consultants – a large corporate accounting firm called MNP – to tell us what to do. Go deep enough in MNP's website, education pops up on a menu but it's not a core function of the company, accounting is. Still, we gave them the task to plot the future of higher education in the North. Then-Education minister Alfred Moses told the legislative assembly the goal was not to find out why the two important degree programs had failed, it was a "foundational review." Premier Caroline Cochrane later said the review would allow the college to "continue to grow and adapt."

MNP did its research from November 2017 to February 2018. Christmas came in the middle so it wasn't really three months. The firm's representatives spoke to people on the phone and looked at the numbers of student success. They reported back longstanding problems between the Department of Education and college staff. The college has a bad image, offers poor student housing and an unattractive student experience.

Key to the recommendations for transforming the college to a polytechnic is the appointment of a change maker, a new assistant deputy minister who would redesign and revitalize all the college and departmental practices standing in the way of success.
Sadly, the change maker they hired didn't measure up to departmental expectations. He was summarily fired, probably at great cost, and replaced by a career education official, all contrary to MNP's recommendations of independent governance.

MNP's consultant do their best to steer clear of laying the responsibility for the decline at anyone's feet. But the education department over successive governments had complete authority over the college, right down to the approval of press releases. Budgets remained static over decades, college leadership and staff had few resources to overcome barriers to building a learning institution that could make Northerners proud. The college was given responsibility for academic and trades success but not responsibility for getting what they needed to do it. Further, the department has its hands full with similar problems in achieving success in K-12. The college is largely left to operate on its own, come what may.

It was the MNP consultant who came up with the polytechnic vision, the educational jewel that would set the course for the college's golden future – a future of fresh-faced Northern students climbing the ladder of academic success, emerging ready for the work-world.
What MNP failed to understand is the K-12 school system is the true foundation of the college. Further, in the GNWT's own words, the majority of college students are Indigenous and many are from small communities. MNP also didn't know that the vast majority of non-Indigenous students – the children of over 5,000 civil servants and business people and the lion's share of graduates – have their hearts set, as do their parents, on going to a good university in the south. Kids want to get out of Dodge and the parents want the best education for their kids, maybe the same school where they went. These institutions are, after all, castles of their colonial culture. Student financial assistance would have accurate numbers for Team Polytechnic.

The graduation rate for that Dene, Metis, Inuvialuit K-12 foundation is a mushy 35 per cent. Mushy because there is a lot of social passing going on, where students not succeeding in one grade are pushed to the higher grade, even though they will likely succeed less.
The good news is there's now a full team of civil servants dedicated to the polytechnic mandate. They would be well advised to apply their own analysis of the longstanding, systemic problems impeding the success of the polytechnic.

But for homework, they must study the two Auditor General's reports on the K-12 school system in the NWT. Those are the department's report cards. As educators, they know scholastic results point the way forward and shouldn't be seen as objects of either shame or blame.

The K-12 school system outside Yellowknife is the true foundation of both Aurora College and a future polytechnic. The only shame would be in not trying to fix it.