SOVA’s triple whammy: housing, competition and the Yukon’s cash deficit

For those who don’t know it, the Yukon School of Visual Arts (SOVA) in Dawson is a very cool program. It offers a “foundation year” program where students do the first year of a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree before transferring to one of SOVA’s famous Canadian partner schools such as the Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Vancouver.

There is a 7,800-square-foot facility in Dawson with studio equipment, individual student spaces and a laptop and digital camera for each student for multimedia projects. In addition to the school’s staff, two accomplished artists-in-residence provide inspiration, technical teaching and mentorship for students.

Throw in its location in Dawson, and you’ve got the ingredients for a year of learning that any artist will look back on as a rich and life-changing experience.

However, SOVA is in trouble. As reported in the Yukon News last week, SOVA’s enrollment has dwindled in recent years to dangerously low levels. In 2007, there were 19 full-time students. Last school year there were only seven full-time and four part-time. As of a few days ago, six were registered for the coming year.

Meanwhile, last year’s budget for the school was about $550,000. Just $22,000, or four per cent, came from tuition. The bulk of SOVA’s funding comes from the Yukon government, with additional support both in cash and in kind from Yukon College and other organizations.

This is the crux of the problem. Government funding from various sources of approximately $530,000 in 2016 supported the education of 11 students. If you count each part-time student as 50 per cent of a full-time student, that works out to $59,000 per full-time student.

Some cranky taxpayer lobby group is probably preparing a snarky press release pointing out that the government would have saved money if it just gave the students $50,000 each and sent them to Emily Carr (although that wouldn’t have any of SOVA’s other benefits such as job creation or supporting the arts in Dawson).

In media interviews this week, SOVA supporters identified housing as a major challenge. A significant number of students are interested in the program, but the cost and limited availability of housing are deterrents. SOVA can’t offer a university residence room, for example, a popular housing choice for first-year students at other universities.

SOVA’s second challenge is competition. Student numbers are not growing as fast as they used to in Canada, and applicants have lots of programs and schools to choose among.

Last November, Statistics Canada reported post-secondary enrollments nationally were up a modest 0.3 per cent over the previous year. While there was growth of 4.1 per cent in the territories, enrollments were actually down slightly in neighbouring B.C. and Alberta. In the category of “Visual and performing arts and communications technologies,” national enrollment was down too.

Meanwhile, students have more choices than ever. Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, UBC Okanagan, and Kwantlen in Vancouver offer visual arts programs, for example. The young Yukoners I know who are interested in visual arts are also well aware of what more longstanding programs at Emily Carr or Humber can offer.

The third and perhaps biggest worry for SOVA is the Yukon Government’s fiscal position. SOVA is not the only government program with a high cost per beneficiary. Such programs were easier to afford when the Yukon had literally hundreds of millions of dollars in its cash surplus account.

However, the Yukon’s cash surplus dwindled rapidly in the last few budgets of the Yukon Party, and this trend continued in the first budget of the new Yukon Liberal government. On March 31 of this year, the Yukon Government’s net financial assets were $93 million. After the planned $83 million cash deficit for this year, that figure will be down to $10 million by next March 31.

Unless either spending is restrained or some wonderful new revenues come from somewhere, the Yukon government will go into debt next year.

To put it another way, spending $59,000 per student was easier when the government had lots of money in the bank. It is another question to borrow from the bond market or pre-spend future generations’ transfer payments to pay for programs like this.

To top it all off, the pressure on Yukon government budgets will have other educational programs clamouring for funds. SOVA will have to compete with programs such as expanded head start kindergarten for high-risk pre-schoolers, learning assistants in the classroom, training more nurses for our aging population or the expenses related to turning Yukon College into a university.

I spoke to someone who runs a program with a similar budget at a major Canadian university. Administrators there expect programs to generate up to half of their funding from tuition, as well as from high-fee professional or executive programs plus other grants and philanthropists.

The professional or executive-style programs could be a sizeable new revenue source for SOVA. If there was some sort of student residence in Dawson, not only could it be used by SOVA students during the school year, but also potentially for fee-paying artist retreats, workshops and similar programs from May to September. SOVA could position Dawson as a “summer destination for cultural education” that attracts mid-career people with deeper wallets or funding for some truly unique programs across artistic, Indigenous and Northern themes.

SOVA’s leaders are undoubtedly working on a program to boost enrollment by marketing the program more effectively to Canadian and international students, cut costs and raise more revenue through new grant applications, tuition fees and corporate and public fundraising.

We should wish them luck.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist.