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The dream of a polytechnic university: a reality check

GNWT cabinet refused to admit the community school system was failing to prepare students for higher education
Bruce Valpy is a longtime Northerner living in Yellowknife and former publisher/CEO of NNSL Media. Photo courtesy of Bruce Valpy

The CBC headline Jun 01, 2024 stated: NWT's Aurora College pauses plan to become a polytechnic university. 

So the vision of a polytechnic university is finally collapsing under the weight of its own misguided creation. Let's recap the journey so far.

In 2017, the two most essential programs for the future of the territory’s Dene, Metis, and Inuvialuit populations — the social work and teacher education programs — were cancelled. These programs were neither suited to nor served the students outside of Yellowknife coming out of the community school system in the NWT.

Previously, senior staff in the GNWT Department of Education, under pressure to account for failing programs and dropping enrolment, blamed the Aurora College president and the board. Both were soon gone, replaced by GNWT staff.

Southern consultants, with no more Indigenous knowledge than the senior education staff who hired them, recommended a transformation into more degree programs via a polytechnic model. There was no consultation or any mention of why the Aurora College degree programs failed, nor how to reverse dropping enrolment. The consultants just made it up. 

The polytechnic solution was embraced enthusiastically by the GNWT cabinet, which preferred to focus on a state-of-the-art campus on Tin Can Hill in Yellowknife rather than admit the community school system was failing to prepare students for higher education.

Now, we have new leadership with Education Minister Caitlin Cleveland. Her predecessor, our present Premier R.J. Simpson, was always in department defence mode. He insisted Indigenous kids were getting degrees (the majority are not even graduating Grade 12) and promised the polytechnic would happen as planned.

Cleveland now faces the challenge.

She's already been ill-advised to boast that there are eight public servants on the transformation team. Compare this to when the Department of Education had only half a position in place, pre-polytechnic, to control Aurora College's board and administration, strangling any innovation and realistic growth chronic underfunding might have allowed over the decades.

Aurora board chair Joe Handley and college administration are now confronting the real reason the degree programs failed: poor academic achievement in the community school system, the true foundation of Aurora College. Add to that a lack of college housing, tattered community learning centres and dropping enrolment — challenges the GNWT has ignored for the past 40 years.

If Cleveland is truly committed to a polytechnic university, she must address the community school system. Reassign those eight civil servants to assess what’s needed for success in our community schools. As well, reversing the decades of neglect suffered by the 21 community learning centres is essential for recruiting students to Aurora College. These community learning centres can be instrumental in upgrading students close to home and filling in the gaps in academic skills required for trades, diplomas, and degrees.

How do we get more Indigenous teachers, quality teacher housing, use online opportunities and win parents over? It starts with honestly documenting results in the early grades, supporting students to meet grade levels and tackling the perennial problem of dismal attendance rates.

Of course, the other option is to maintain the status quo and enjoy being a minister. That approach has brought us to where we are today and stands in the way of a successful polytechnic university.

I documented what I could on my MLA campaign site at There, you will see the education numbers numbers that need to improve if a higher institute of Northern learning is ever to be realized, along with the economic opportunities we need it to bring.

—Bruce Valpy is a longtime Northerner living in Yellowknife and former publisher/CEO of NNSL Media.