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Review calls for Aurora College to be transformed into 'Northern Canada Polytechnic University'

The Northwest Territories could get a polytechnic university as soon as 2024, if the government decides to accept the recommendations of the Aurora College Foundational Review.

The review contains 67 recommendations for how to manage programs, recruit and retain students, restructure the college’s system of governance, and improve the overall operation of the college.

The overarching recommendation however, is to transform Aurora College into a “Northern Canada Polytechnic University” within the next six to eight years.

“I am ecstatic,” Caroline Cochrane, the minister of Education, Culture and Employment, said at a press conference Wednesday after embargoed copies of the review were released to media.

Cochrane called the review “one of the best pieces of literature” that has been written for this legislative assembly.

The school's primary campus would be located in Yellowknife, and it would offer a mix of apprenticeships, certificate, diploma and degree programs.

The review is imbued with a sense of urgency.

In addition to institutions in the south, the NWT’s school would be competing with Yukon College, which is aggressively pursuing university status.

The review calls for the NWT to begin investing in the transformation process immediately.

But how much it would cost to transition Aurora College into a polytechnic university is unknown.

Calgary-based consulting firm MNP LLP, which conducted the review, was not given any budgetary constraints in the review's terms of reference.

Still, Cochrane is confident the transformation is feasible.

“Is it doable? Absolutely,” she said.

“We're doing the work already except we're very scattered.”

The GNWT predicts there will be up to 36,700 job openings in the next 12 years that require a college, apprenticeship or university education.

The government wants those jobs to be filled by NWT residents.

“The need for higher education has to be seen by the GNWT as a primary economic driver and key to developing the knowledge economy,” reads the review.

“The need for workforce development has never been more acute.”

The foundational review is unsparing in its criticism of the college today.

It cites issues with student housing and daycare and inadequate support for students as having a “negative impact on the college’s ability to attract students and support their success.”

There are also issues with employee morale, a lack of accountability and problems with inter-campus collaboration and communication.

“The college seems to continuously operate in crisis mode and has historically tried to be ‘everything to everyone.’ This is ineffective and not sustainable,” states the review.

In an emailed statement, Aurora College’s interim President Jeff O’Keefe said it will be “business as usual” in the 2018-19 academic year.

O’Keefe said it would be “premature” to comment on the recommendations, and state whether Aurora College is in favour of transitioning to a polytechnic university, before the review is assessed by the government.

The previous minister of Education Culture and Employment, Alfred Moses, announced the foundational review in March of 2017, shortly after the government proposed cutting $1.89 million from the college’s budget and doing away with the social work and Bachelor of education programs.

After significant public outcry, the budget cuts were put on hold and enrollment to the two programs was frozen pending the outcome of the foundational review.

Though she would not say definitively whether the social work and bachelor of education programs would be reinstated, Cochrane, who herself holds a degree in social work, suggested this was her hope.

“I have a bit of a bias towards social work, and I also know that both those occupations are important to residents of the territory,” she said.

Cochrane added that social work and education jobs are among the top three jobs projected to be most in demand in the territory in the next 15 years.

The review states that examining the social work and education programs should be a top priority.

Moses’s reason for suspending the social work and education programs was that enrollment and graduation rates were low.

The review suggests developing a plan to entice future students to the trades and apprenticeship programs, but makes no such recommendation for the social work or education programs.

Aurora College is doing its own review of the social work program, and Cochrane said that internal review will also be used to evaluate the social work program.

A question mark hangs over who might lead Aurora College through a transformation into a polytechnic.

In June of 2017, three months after the government announced the foundational review, Moses fired the college’s board of directors and simultaneously appointed a single administrator.

Last week, Jayne Arychuck, the college’s president for the last six years, resigned.

Arychuk resigned for “personal reasons,” said Cochrane.

On Friday, Cochrane will meet with a standing committee of MLAs to discuss the recommendations.

Once the government determines which recommendations it will act on, recruitment will begin for the college's new leader.

The government's response to the review is expected in the fall.

MNP LLP was initially given $412,620 to conduct the review, but an extension to the timeline and travel expenses will push the grand total higher.