Yukon College is a more important part of our community than most people think.
A whopping 5,831 Yukoners took some kind of course there last year, a pretty high figure for a place with only around 30,000 adults. Of these, almost 700 were in full-time credited programs, ranging from university transfer to trades to high-school equivalency courses.
It is a major economic factor in the territory, with a budget of $45 million. It is also a big line item in the budget every year, with students covering just 2.7 per cent of the college’s costs with their tuition and fees (the figure Quebec students are rioting over is 17 per cent).
An institute of higher learning is part of any city worth its name. In the settler days, the ink was seldom dry on a city’s charter before someone was founding a university. Saskatoon became a city in 1906 and U of S followed a year later. The University of Washington actually predates the City of Seattle.
More recently, cities have pushed universities as engines of economic development. Not only do they have big budgets and lots of jobs, they attract out-of-town students as well as – in some cases – clusters of businesses.
Thomson Rivers University in Kamloops is one of the city’s biggest employers and has over 10,000 students. U of S’s impact on economic development in the province is hard to overstate, going back to its early innovations in agriculture.
All of which brings up the future of Yukon College. Lots of people have been talking about university status, and the board is going through a strategic planning process right now. In my view, the status of the institution is less important than its programs. Looking forward 10 or 20 years, what might we expect from Yukon College?
First of all, its “access” programs are critical. The Yukon’s high school drop-out rate is much too high, but fortunately some of these Yukoners get back on track at the college. Furthermore, English as a second language courses are important for our growing population of new Yukoners.
Secondly, if the college moves towards university status it must not forget its roots in the trades. In fact, my vision for the institution would have an even bigger trades program, covering more trades and even hosting non-Yukon students keen to learn critical mining and environmental technical skills.
I could also see it collaborating with high schools to offer more high school programs. If Grade 9-12 students now can spend a semester or two at the Wood Street Centre studying drama or outdoor education, why not have a similar high school trades experiential program at Yukon College? Even better, make it a high-school co-op program in partnership with local mining and construction companies.
Finally, beefing up university programs would be great. The college is too small to offer everything, so focus will be important here. It probably makes most sense to build on existing degree programs with some additional Yukon flavour. Perhaps environmental studies or geology. Or even a joint Bachelor of Commerce and Public Administration, aimed at training the next generation of mine managers, First Nations business leaders and public servants.
If the college comes up with a convincing plan to deliver on real programs like this, university status would be a nice way to recognize it. But naming the university will raise some challenges.
“Yukon University” sounds good and follows nicely from “Yukon College.” It also avoids the vexed question of whether we should cave in to the people who want us to sound more like a province and kill the “the” in front of the Yukon. However, future chancellors are not going to like students wearing “Yuk-U” T-shirts. So I vote for University of the Yukon.
We’ll also have to send the trademark lawyers after UConn and their Huskies sports teams (that’s the University of Connecticut, for those who don’t follow NCAA basketball).
However, a big question for the institution, and its government founders, will be its financial strategy. Generating just three per cent of revenue from tuition is likely too low. It leaves the institution too dependent on fickle government funding.
Tuition was raised 20 per cent last year, with a full year of studies in most programs costing $3,240 according to a Yukon News story at the time. Meanwhile, the Toronto Globe and Mail reports that average university tuition in B.C. is $4,852 and over $5,000 in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Quebec and Newfoundland, on the other hand, are even lower than Yukon College. We don’t want to raise tuition to B.C. or Alberta levels, because we want to keep it accessible to locals.
Tuition here is roughly similar to that of various provinces. There is, however, a big difference in cost structure. As noted above, tuition covers only about three per cent of the cost base at Yukon College. This figure is 15-35 per cent in all the provinces except Newfoundland, where it is nine per cent.
Tuition isn’t that much lower at Yukon College, but there are a few potential reasons that could explain the gap. One is that Yukon College could have a lot of overhead. Or it could have many small programs and small class sizes, which are attractive to students, but also expensive to offer.
Management will have to look at things like private-sector funding and higher non-Yukon student numbers. Co-op trades programs raise the possibility of private sector funding.
Even better would be figuring out how to attract non-Yukon students. This might mean English or other courses for international students, of which there were just 45 last year. The college tried marketing aggressively in China a decade ago, but it is not easy. Another possibility is luring Alaskan, B.C. and Alberta students to environmental, mining or First Nations programs.
Being successful in attracting out-of-territory students is also important because it is real-world proof to funders and students that the institution is competitive in terms of quality. This will become increasingly important as government budgets get tighter.
Right now, the college is vulnerable to criticism by those who point out that a $45-million budget works out to $254,286 per certificate, diploma or degree handed out last year (or $7,631 per person who took any kind of course last year).
You can’t put a price on education, of course, and the college does other things with its budget besides teach people. But the college will have an easier time in the funding battles to come if it can show it is attracting more students and growing its own revenue substantially.
It’s an exciting time for Yukon College and I’m looking forward to seeing what kind of plan management comes up with. I’ve also got $20 set aside for a Yuk-U T-shirt.
Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels.