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College of the North overreached

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University College of the North's decision to shut down some programs may reflect a straitened financial situation brought about by provincial policy that has capped or cut tuition and grant increases to post-secondary schools. Or it may be a symptom of a good idea derailed by growth that was too rapid for a new post-secondary institution trying too hard.

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UCN was anointed in 2004 as the premiere educational option for northern Manitoba's aboriginal people, by an NDP government that believed a university that reflected the region's indigenous culture and economic needs was key to developing its potential.

So Keewatin Community College became UCN, which was bestowed degree-granting privileges by the province. It expanded its college programs and developed five university degree programs, offered at two campus sites and a variety of centres in smaller communities.

The new university-college model came with renovated and shiny new facilities. UCN had big dreams. It assumed the education degree program from Brandon University and enrolled students in a BSc of nursing, in conjunction with the University of Manitoba. Its BA program specializes in northern and aboriginal studies. But its midwifery program, which has yet to graduate a student, is accepting no new registrants while the faculty attempts to get it back on the rails, having moved it from the North to Winnipeg.

There have been a handful of university graduates, but the annual numbers are not impressive -- falloff in enrolment after the first year is high. The BA programs at Thompson and The Pas are popular, but saw only one and six (respectively) graduates last year. UCN had a total 137 students enrolled in the third or fourth year of a degree program, and 15 graduates (nursing grads are counted in U of M's statistics).

The expansion of UCN's college programs has been equally ambitious. The 29 programs it inherited from Keewatin Community College has grown to 40. Now a dozen will shut down.

The office of Advanced Education Minister Erin Selby says the courses are being closed for lack of enrolment, but a public letter from UCN president Konrad Jonasson outlined the moves as necessary to cut the institution's deficit, which in 2012 was more than $751,000 in its $41.6-million operating budget. Staff will be laid off as well.

UCN, as with other post-secondary schools this year, received only half the five per cent increase in government grants the NDP administration had promised this year. While that is painful for all institutions, UCN was particularly vulnerable because it is disproportionately dependent upon government grants to carry its operating budget.

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Other schools receive between 50 and 60 per cent of their revenues from public funding; government grants make up 80 per cent of UCN's revenues. Meanwhile, tuition and fees draw a mere 7.7 per cent of revenues, compared to more than 20 per cent at other schools.

Education of aboriginal people, and particularly those in remote northern communities, must be a priority in Manitoba. Intuitively, bringing school closer to home in a culturally relevant curriculum should improve chances of success. The North needs trained professionals and skilled labour willing to remain in the region. UCN's progress toward meeting the vision appears to have been fast-tracked to the detriment of the long-term goal, and for many of its students.

Ms. Selby needs to call an independent, external evaluation of UCN's programs and finances. Of particular concern is its ability to retain and to graduate its students. Manitobans can understand the fact UCN needs greater public funding than southern counterparts that are more established and draw from a large well of potential students. But it must be shown to be money well spent.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 8, 2013 A8

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