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New universities demonstrate education is valued in Alberta

March 8 2018 —

Alberta’s Ministry of Advanced Education had a busy first week of March. They granted university status to three of the province’s colleges — Red Deer College (RDC), Grande Prairie Regional College (GPRC) and the Alberta College of Art + Design (ACAD). These changes, while partially symbolic, go a long way towards solidifying the value of non-traditional post-secondary education in Alberta.

When it comes to RDC and GPRC, the significance of the university designation is clear. It gives these schools the ability to develop and grant undergraduate degrees, something that will make post-secondary education and greater employment opportunities far more accessible to Albertans living outside of the province’s major cities. At a press conference following the announcement, school and government officials were right to make the point that giving students the ability to remain close to home during their studies only means good things for students’ futures.

However, the impact of ACAD’s new designation is less clear. ACAD — the only degree-granting visual arts school in Canada between Vancouver and Toronto — could arguably already be considered a university in everything but its name. The school offers both undergraduate and graduate degrees and currently hosts about 1,200 students pursuing four-year programs.

There are a few tangible changes that members of the Alberta government and ACAD administration were able to cite as a result of their new university status. For one, the school will gain a General Faculties Council, similar to the one currently operating at the University of Calgary. The council will provide more comprehensive academic oversight for the school, something its current governance structure lacks. And other benefits, such as making it easier to transfer credits for students and the degrees will have elevated prestige, but these don’t address the significant financial problems that have plagued ACAD in recent years.

An internal report for ACAD published last October characterized the institution as being “on the verge of unsustainability.” At the same time, the school’s president said inflation was outpacing their tuition and added that if not for the provincial government’s tuition freeze, the school would consider tuition hikes. While it’s clear that a financial solution must be reached for ACAD’s future, no additional funding was announced alongside ACAD’s university status. Alberta Minister of Advanced Education Marlin Schmidt declined to comment on finances at the announcement other than stating funding was “under review.”

Community colleges and art schools are an essential part of our post-secondary system. They allow students to pursue diverse education paths in and around the places where they have their roots. As Alberta moves away from an oil-centric economy, institutions like art schools hold more economic power, which is something our governments should invest in. That two of Alberta’s largest community colleges were given the ability to grant students degrees is a significant step for higher education in the prairies, but there’s still a long way to go when it comes to the fine arts.

The U of C’s visual arts department is hosted on the top floor of a parkade, and its performance arts are largely sequestered to the bottom floors of Craigie Hall, the campus’s most decrepit building. While the school nonetheless produces quality programs, they make their academic priorities clear through their infrastructure decisions.

Non-traditional post-secondary options are worth investing in. Studying close to home in central or northwest Alberta lessens a major financial barrier to education for rural students. And while creating the Alberta University of Art + Design — or whatever it ends up being called — is a good first step, the NDP must follow up with long-term funding commitments to effectively foster these forms of education.

— Jason Herring, Gauntlet editorial board

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