I’ve been confused by all the headlines over the polytechnic university. I don’t know what a polytechnic university is or where it fits in between grade school, college, university, real life.
What I do understand is that two of the most critical education programs – social work and teacher’s education – have stumbled if not been stopped at Aurora College.
Were these Aurora College diploma and degree programs a success? No, both suffered low enrolment and completion rates.
In the review of what had gone wrong at the college, somehow the surprising solution was to upgrade to a polytechnic university.
Early on I was invited to meet with the now fired Tom Weegar who was to make the polytechnic university happen. I have written many columns on our Northern education, based upon my experience of having five children go through the system.
I told Weegar that the polytechnic concept was ignoring the substandard results coming from the schools outside of Yellowknife. Besides which, how many Northern parents and students would choose a Northern higher education option over a southern university?
There’s the University of Victoria, University of British Columbia, Okanagan College, Lethbridge College, University of Calgary, University of Alberta, Red Deer College, Grande Prairie College, MacEwan University, Mount Royal. So many more east and west, all great institutions.
The GNWT should poll their own staff, a large part of the workforce in the North, to see how many would consider a Northern polytechnic education option. Very few I reckon. I want my kids to go to one of the well-resourced and established universities above.
Weegar and I agreed on one thing: Due to the past failure to properly educate young Indigenous Northerners outside of Yellowknife, there should be no entrance requirements for those now mature adults wanting to enter the polytechnic system.
Our thinking, or at least mine, was that over the years, from residential school to the present, the education system has failed to give too many students tools they can use to learn. If when older, they want to get an education, nothing but honest effort, good study habits and solid exam performance should stand in their way.
The bigger problem other than qualified Northern students, Indigenous or otherwise, choosing the south: Our public school system isn’t producing enough qualified Indigenous graduates to take the teacher degree and social work diploma programs.
Premier Cochrane knows it. The recent Auditor General of Canada report shows it. The problem for Premier Cochrane is the large polytechnic lobby in the capital, from members of city council to Yellowknife MLAs and a vocal segment of the city. These influential people rightly view it both as an educational asset and an economic opportunity. This is the Yellowknife bubble. Only a small percentage of Yellowknifers understand or care what happens in education in the communities because it doesn’t affect their lives.
The shocking numbers affirm Weegar, who has a broad knowledge of school systems and Indigenous learning models, was given a false mandate. Aurora College can only be as good as the schools feeding it. How could Weegar change the fact that less than 50 percent of Indigenous students graduate in the NWT?
As for the polytechnic visionaries, the bureaucracy has retaken the reins of the college, killing the project momentum. Hopefully, this at least signals a return to the job at hand – properly educating Indigenous students K-12. This is also a sign the private fundraising route is the way to go for a future polytechnic university. Dechinta and Dene Nahjo are two obvious partners who share the vision of a made-in-the North, culturally designed academic institution, but so might the Indigenous governments – the Inuvialuit, Gwich’in, Sahtu communities, Tlicho, Dehcho, Akaitcho and Metis. The City of Yellowknife under such a funding umbrella, could spearhead an effort to find more national financial resources of which there are many. There lies the road to proper purpose and true independence for a polytechnic university.
However worthy and viable the establishment of polytechnic university is, the territorial department of education cannot do it. Its hugely challenging and unwavering mandate must be to find learning pathways to educate Indigenous Northerners to standards that will make Aurora College and a future polytechnic university a success.
MLAs outside Yellowknife, including Education Minister R.J. Simpson, have a duty to to help make this happen, at least a credible start. As for the education bureaucracy, fear of failure has actually led to failure and should be replaced by a larger fear of trying nothing different.