Last year’s proposal for a polytechnic university headquartered in Yellowknife couldn’t have come at a better time for the city.
With growing concern about the economy, particularly surrounding the future of mining in the territory, it’s easy to get behind a northern polytechnic university. And Yellowknife, as the territory’s largest community, with the most resources available to potential staff and students, is the most logical place to put it.
The recent report conducted by the city-hired consultant firm StrategyCorp strongly suggests Yellowknife has no choice. Digging into the figures, it is easy see why.
Between Student Financial Assistance and Aurora College, the territorial government is currently spending about $50 million per year on post-secondary education. Neither resource has been terribly effective.
Aurora College does not offer a wide enough range of programming to fill northern job needs and thus, it struggles to attract students to attend. Enrolment has declined at all three campuses in Yellowknife, Fort Smith and Inuvik, from about 897 full-time students in 2014 to 780 in 2016, according to the college’s 2016-17 annual report – a drop of about 13 per cent.
Student Financial Assistance is attractive to northern families because it provides grants and forgivable loans for each year of schooling received in the territory but it hasn’t done enough to convince people to return north after completing their post-secondary education down south.
According to the StrategyCorp report, the territory is losing out on research grants and other economic benefits as well.
Aurora College drew in a paltry $390,000 in 2016-17 out of $88.9 million available for northern and arctic research initiatives.
In short, Yellowknife, and the territory as a whole, is missing out.
Establishing a polytechnic university would not only open up areas of study that would help develop and strengthen the economy — in areas such as tourism, health care, engineering and construction – but may also attract southerners to attend.
The GNWT spends about $15 million a year on Student Financial Assistance. Most of it gets spent by northern students attending southern institutions. What a boon it would be if the territory could flip some of that equation in the other direction.
If done right, a polytechnic university could both retain Northern students so that they can stay close to home and study and draw outsiders to the North. The StrategyCorp study is also right to point out with a declining and aging population, the territory will need more young people to help build up the tax base and retain the services we all currently enjoy.
To be sure there will be challenges. All layers of government, including Indigenous buy-in will be required to make it work. Right now there is an $80 million projected figure to get a facility built, never mind student housing requirements for 200 full-time students.
Perhaps, one of the most important aspects of establishing a university in Yellowknife is confidence and energy its conceptualization will bring to the city.
Nothing spells hope better than starting something exciting and new. Yellowknife can use a little more of that.