Undoubtedly, more than a few people, ourselves included, were a little surprised by the recommendations coming out of the foundational review for Aurora College.

A cynic might conclude that a government-ordered review would merely serve to validate its position from the year before – namely that the college needed to tighten its belt along with other GNWT-funded entities as the territorial government faces ballooning costs.

Well, what difference a year makes. Last year, former education minister Alfred Moses was defending cuts to the college’s social work and teaching programs as a “cost-effective and efficient” measure. The plan seemed to demand cuts not expansion.

Last week his successor, an absolutely radiant Caroline Cochrane, was praising a report stating the college needed to be bigger, a polytechnic university in fact – with its headquarters moved out of sleepy Fort Smith to Yellowknife, where all the action is, along with housing and student services.

The highly anticipated review of Aurora College sets out a bold vision for creating a university based in Yellowknife. The question, of course, is how much? NNSL file photo

Not a cent was assigned to this bold scenario, although the report recommends an ambitious opening date – 2024.

Uncertainties aside, we share Cochrane’s excitement. Developing intellectual capital will attract monetary capital to the city at a time when the city could really use it. This has been the case in many formerly working-class towns and it could work for Yellowknife, especially considering the uncertain future of diamond mining in the territory.

And, as we pointed out in last week’s editorial, it would be a greater benefit to NWT taxpayers to educate university students in the North rather than fill their bank accounts with student financial assistance money and then send them down south to pay tuition and rent.

The great walls to be climbed are capacity and cost, not to mention resentment from other communities who question why Yellowknife always gets the big prize.

Cochrane may be “ecstatic” about the report’s recommendations but it’s doubtful her cabinet colleague, Fort Smith’s Louis Sebert, is.

The education minister will require a deft hand in convincing other MLAs that revamping Aurora College as a Yellowknife-based university is the right move.

The short answer is that Aurora College, with its primary campus in Fort Smith, has been unable to meet the needs of post-secondary students in the territory. An expanded institution in Yellowknife, with more options and opportunities, has a better chance. The capacity and capability is in Yellowknife, not Fort Smith – a tenth the city’s size.

A political plum – something less dependent on community size – will have to be found to sweeten the proposal. Perhaps shifting more forest fire-fighting capacity to the South Slave would help.

Construction should begin by the spring of 2021, states the report, with a completion date set for the summer of 2024, which would be the inaugural school year.

The review defends the deadline, arguing that the GNWT needs to launch this institution of higher education as early as practically possible, “as the post-secondary sector is becoming increasingly global and competitive.”

That takes us to the next golden question: how does a government that was looking to make cuts afford building a northern university within six years?

It’s a grand scheme, something that would certainly benefit all the territory, but a difficult idea to contemplate without knowing the dollars and cents.

Cochrane will have to settle that and do it soon if she doesn’t want to be drowned out by a chorus of negative Nellies pouring water on an exciting but uncertain proposal.


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