Yukon College’s difficult path to university status

Alex Usher Recently Yukon Education Minister Doug Graham announced that the territory was going to change the name of Yukon College to Yukon University. The college then proceeded to state that it would launch new degree programs and seek membership in U

COMMENTARY

by Alex Usher

Recently Yukon Education Minister Doug Graham announced that the territory was going to change the name of Yukon College to Yukon University. The college then proceeded to state that it would launch new degree programs and seek membership in Universities Canada in 2017.

Well, now. How is that going to work exactly?

Universities Canada has some pretty clear guidelines about membership. Point 4 says that a prospective member must have “as its core teaching mission the provision of education of university standard with the majority of its programs at that level.” At the moment, only five of Yukon College’s 50-odd programs are at degree level (Social Work, Public Administration, Environmental and Conservation Sciences, Education – Yukon Native Teacher, and Circumpolar Studies).

Now, presumably it could upgrade some of its career and tech programming into full degree programs to change the balance a bit, but it’s not clear that would be to students’ benefit: there are good reasons – cost among them – to keep programs like business administration, early childhood education and various technologist programs at two years rather than four.

One possible solution would be to split the administration of the college and the university, so that the two could share physical space, infrastructure, and back-office functions, while at the same time having separate management and programming. This might get Yukon College off one hook, but it would quickly get snagged by another. Universities Canada also requires prospective members to have 500 full-time equivalent students (FTEs) for at least two years before joining.

According to Yukon College’s annual report for 2013-14, degree and transfer programs for the previous year together only made up 253 FTEs, or about a third of the college’s 748 FTE students in credit programming. One would need some really big increases in student numbers to change this. But Yukon College would likely have trouble moving the needle much.

From 2007-08 until 2014-15, FTE enrollment numbers at the college have never gone over 850, and the highest two-year average is about 820. Even assuming you could nudge university numbers from a third to a half of total enrolments, that would still leave a newly-separated university nearly 100 students shy of the required 500.

Now, there’s nothing stopping a Yukon institution from using the name “university,” even if Universities Canada doesn’t agree. Quest University seems to be doing fine without Universities Canada membership, for instance. But Universities Canada is still the closest thing Canada has to an accreditation system, and so being on the outside would hurt.

But here’s a wild-and-crazy suggestion: Yukon wants a university; Nunavut wants a university; presumably, at some point, the Northwest Territories will glom onto this idea and want a university, too. Any one of them, individually, would have a hard go of making a serious university work. But together, they might have a shot.

Of course, universities are to some extent local vanity projects. I’m sure each territory would prefer its own university rather than share one. But these things cost money, especially at low volume. We could have three weak northern universities, or we could have one serious University of the North. Territories need to choose carefully, here.

Alex Usher is the president of Higher Education Strategy Associates and Editor-in-Chief of Global Higher Education Strategy Monitor. This commentary originally appeared at

www.higheredstrategy.com.

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