The wheels of change turn slowly in the academic world — regardless of the integral role that education plays in economic growth.
More than five weeks ago, Premier Alison Redford spoke to the Advocate’s editorial board about the vital nature of Red Deer College, particularly praising its trades programs and its contribution to the arts community of Alberta.
Pressed about turning RDC into a university, she said: “I don’t think you could have too many universities. If Red Deer College is aspiring to be a university, then we need to do our best to support that.” More programs need to be offered at the institution, she said.
For Central Albertans, those should be heartening words, even if they were uttered on the campaign trail, when nary a discouraging word can be heard.
For Joel Ward, RDC president, they should be a rallying cry, now that the provincial election is over and Redford has a solid mandate for the next four years.
And for Red Deer’s two Progressive Conservative MLAs, Mary Anne Jablonski and Cal Dallas, they should become the basis for a clear plan of attack: help RDC evolve and do it quickly. The third largest urban centre in the province deserves no less.
Last week, Ward announced that business administration students finally will be able to earn four-year degrees without leaving Red Deer, starting next September. The partnership with recently converted Mount Royal University in Calgary (in Redford’s riding) will fill what has been a grievous gap.
Certainly, RDC’s move to the downtown Donald School of Business last year was, in part, in preparation for this moment.
So now RDC has three full degree programs (in which all instruction occurs in Red Deer), as a result of partnerships with other institutions, nursing and education being the other two (both partnered with the University of Alberta).
More typically, the college’s seven degree completion programs (through the U of A, the University of Calgary and Athabasca University) require students to move for at least part of the program. About 2,400 students are enrolled in degree programs at RDC and 1,900 of those students must move to complete their degrees. And then there are the inevitable transfers after the first or second years for students attempting to obtain degrees in a variety of other areas.
Beyond the extraordinary cost to families (a year of post-secondary education away from home costs at least $15,000 per student, including tuition), there is a more immeasurable but still significant cost: the loss of bright young people to other job markets.
Red Deer Chamber of Commerce president Maureen McMurtrie projects that more business students will now choose to build their lives here after graduation. “Typically what has happened is students had to leave Central Alberta or had left Central Alberta to continue their business education in the other centres. And we don’t always get that talent back in Central Alberta.”
According to the 2012 Vital Signs report, the Red Deer region suffers mightily from brain drain. In 2010, just 42.9 per cent of the adult population had completed a post-secondary program. The national average is 51.8 per cent and the provincial average is 51.3 per cent.
Certainly it’s not feasible for RDC to offer the broad range of programs available at the U of A or the U of C.
And RDC should not in any way stop its aggressive and successful trades education mission. It serves well an often-voracious job market in this region.
But the appetite for a broader academic array is already there, and growing.
And RDC, in many ways, is already positioned. Visual arts students, for example, are campaigning to have their two-year diploma education changed to a four-year degree program. In part, they believe this can be easily accomplished because of the quality of the existing faculty and the first-rate facilities.
“A bachelor of fine arts is on our radar,” said Ward. But again, it would appear a partnership with another institution is the likely solution. And that kind solution creates a hodgepodge of academic masters for both the college and students to juggle.
There are about 75 programs at RDC, and many of them by necessity now offer students piecemeal links to other institutions for program completion. Certainly those institutional relationships will be part of any transition to full university status for RDC.
But ultimately, RDC must established an identity of its own as a university, for the benefit of local students, and for the health of this community’s economy.
John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.