Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

College fails to make the grade

Optimism for northern university despite damning report

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Sasha Zeiler (left) demonstrates dental technology  on classmate Alexis Chez at UCN in 2010.


Sasha Zeiler (left) demonstrates dental technology on classmate Alexis Chez at UCN in 2010. Photo Store

Graduation rates at University College of the North are low -- really low.

Some expensive remote campuses have zero graduates and very few students.

Everyone thinks pursuing aboriginal and northern values and beliefs is a great idea, but no one has defined what it means.

University of Manitoba economist Prof. Richard Lobdell found all of that and more after an intensive external review of the fledgling University College of the North.

And yet...

Lobdell is positively euphoric about how far UCN has come since it was transformed from Keewatin Community College into the post- secondary future of northern Manitoba less than a decade ago.

"I was astonished at how much UCN managed to get done since 2004-2005," Lobdell said in an interview. "They've accomplished a lot more than I would have thought likely in 2004-2005."

But, Lobdell cautioned, "A lot of new things were tried. Some were more successful than others -- it's easy for new institutions to go beyond their grasps."

UCN president Konrad Jonasson won't say any of Lobdell's findings are off-base, but he isn't buying everything in the report and is emphatic the northerners are on top of developing their own flagship institution.

A retreat of 60 members of UCN's governing councils in October looked closely at what aboriginal and northern values and beliefs mean, said Jonasson: "We certainly understand how it needs to shape our academic programs, our student recruitment... have a representative workforce that reflects the demographics of the north."

Rather than pull back on regional centres, UCN is considering requests from 11 communities for additional centres, he said.

There are 500 regional-centre students this year, Jonasson said. "We only see that growing. We see it expanding in the future."

If there's rotation, it will be of programs, he said. UCN is going to offer pre-employment plumbing in Norway House, same for electrical in Nelson House and preparatory courses in Oxford House to ready students for carpentry, plumbing and electrical.

Jonasson insisted graduation rates in brand-new university courses aren't that far off the rates in the south -- many programs appear to have few graduates because the first students have yet to finish. There are 28 education students at St. Theresa Point, but they're in the second year of a four-year program, he pointed out.

UCN has joint programs with southern schools, such as midwifery and nursing at U of M, but he wants northern students to graduate with a degree earned in the north.

"Students who go south often do not come back north," Jonasson declared. That's why "we are looking at putting forward an application for a bachelor of business administration program."

Money might be tight, but Jonasson wants the next phase of the new Thompson campus to include facilities to teach the trades and have more housing, this time for single students. Daycare spaces and affordable quality housing will be part of every capital project UCN proposes, said Jonasson.

With the $82-million first phase of the Thompson campus set to open in late May, likely moving Thompson ahead of The Pas as the larger of the two main campuses, Education and Advanced Learning Minister James Allum is reluctant to criticize anything about what has been the NDP's northern poster project to improve abysmal education and employment rates for northern aboriginals.

"It's a very important institution. It's profoundly important to northerners, and especially aboriginal northerners," Allum said in an interview. "Our goal is to try to strengthen UCN, and yet UCN is also an autonomous institution. I really want to respect they're an autonomous institution.

"You always want the highest and best use of resources. I'm very cautious about extending into their business, but we also need outcomes, northerners need outcomes," said the minister.

That's about as close as Allum comes to concerns over low graduation rates and the demand for additional regional centres.

In the five years Lobdell studied, Oxford House and Nelson House had zero students some years, and Churchill ranged from four to 40. Flin Flon, Norway House and Cross Lake have been consistently strong.

Regional centres are fundamental to UCN's existence, said Lobdell, but, "they're extraordinarily expensive," and some places have few residents.

"The student base just wasn't there," but still, "they get a lot of people pleading with them to start new centres."

Lobdell is adamant regardless what problems and challenges UCN may have, there is no racial tension on the campuses.

"That was a real worry early on," he acknowledged.

No other Canadian university or university college has an elders council as part of its governance. Staff are still uncertain what equity hiring means or how it will affect them, said Lobdell, and everyone needs to sit down and figure out what "aboriginal and northern values and beliefs" means and how it affects the operation of the school.

Lobdell said graduation data are "mushy" because UCN has not translated course registrations into the number of full-and-part-time students very well. "Everyone accepts that the completion rates there are pretty low," he said.

UCN needs to know why students aren't graduating and why they're coming to UCN not prepared for postsecondary, Lobdell said. "You've got to play the hand you're dealt -- you've got to fix it."

And while he ruefully said his opinion might not be popular at U of M, "the community colleges are by and large better at dealing with what they've got. The universities better at saying what they wish they had."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 22, 2014 A15


Updated on Saturday, February 22, 2014 at 9:55 AM CST: corrects typos

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