An opportunity, or else

Advanced Education Minister Thomas Lukaszuk has sent a heavy-handed, non-negotiable edict to the province’s 26 colleges and universities. It came like a thunderbolt out of the Tory blue — and it will precipitously change the way all of them operate.

Advanced Education Minister Thomas Lukaszuk has sent a heavy-handed, non-negotiable edict to the province’s 26 colleges and universities. It came like a thunderbolt out of the Tory blue — and it will precipitously change the way all of them operate.

It will certainly change the way students make choices for post-secondary education.

And I find myself in agreement with a good part of what’s being done. Or at least, the stated intent.

As university commentators on news reports and radio talk shows have already said: the devil is in the details. Stating government intentions in a five-page letter to all college and university boards is one thing; the actual work is in the follow-up, which we have yet to see.

But if the Red Deer College board of governors can finesse its way through what will be two weeks of chaotic discussion, and if the blunt force of government handles this right, families in Central Alberta can come out big winners in Lukaszuk’s proposed revamp.

“It’s time we rethink how we deliver education. This will not be mandated from my office. It will be collaborative,” said the minister. Or else.

“What we arrive at is negotiable but the fact is there will be change and change has to occur — and that is not negotiable.” The boards of governors have until April 11 to draft a reply to Lukaszuk’s “letter of expectation.” For “expectation” insert “the reason we give you all this money.”

Here’s one expectation: The province wants to establish a “Campus Alberta,” wherein students in any academic program anywhere in Alberta will have full transferability to the same programs in other institutions.

That could be a godsend to Red Deer College — if things are handled right.

Why have we been fighting for years for Red Deer College to have full university status? It’s because not having one means that any student in our area who wants a degree has to leave our region to get one.

The college, as well as Red Deer taxpayers and business groups, have been complaining for years that once we send our students away for higher education, they seldom come back. We’ve been paying for that “brain drain” for decades.

If students in Red Deer can get the first three years of an academic program here, and finish their final year at a university that would grant them their degree, they and their families would save tens of thousands of dollars.

And it becomes more likely the student would begin career planning here, rather than in Edmonton or Calgary.

So the universities must first review all their programs, to see if they are really “in demand by employers and students.” More, Lukaszuk’s letter tells them to “enhance your work with business and industry to maximize the responsiveness to community and regional economic and social needs.”

All of this is right up RDC’s alley. It’s been the college’s bread and butter for a long time.

What’s missing is the completion of the college’s mission to offer a full menu of both academic and trade options. RDC has transfer contracts for a limited number of programs with universities, but Lukaszuk wants more.

So do we. For instance, a student could begin a bachelor of science program here in Red Deer, and study here three years, living at home. Upon completing the program’s final year at the University of Alberta with full transferability of courses, that student would become eligible to enter the U of A’s masters-level program in occupational therapy. Now there’s a program with a future.

That’s just one example. There could be a dozen others.

The U of A has responded, saying they don’t want to be a cookie-cutter institution. But they have been increasing their institutional emphasis on post-graduate programs and research (at the cost of excellence in undergrad instruction) for years.

Smaller regional colleges like RDC can make better cookies, cheaper — and in the places that employers and taxpayers want them.

Sit down quickly with the devil and work out the details. Or else.

Greg Neiman is a retired Advocate editor. Follow his blog at readersadvocate.blogspot.ca or email greg.neiman.blog@gmail.com.

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