UCP cancels plans for 2 new universities

The NDP had announced the new universities for Red Deer and Grande Prairie 3 years ago. They’re being replaced with polytechnics instead.

Alberta’s UCP government recently revealed their intent to convert 2 colleges in the province into polytechnic institutions. This effectively cancels previously announced plans to make them into universities.

On 4 May 2021, the government released the news that Red Deer College would become a polytechnic. A week later, they made a similar announcement about Grand Prairie Regional College.

In 2018, the NDP made two similar announcements—also a week apart—except their plan was to make the two institutions both universities. In both of those announcements, the government reported that it had “approved” the colleges to pursue university status.

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A similar wording wasn’t present in the UCP announcement, which raises questions about who initiated the polytechnic process.

Here’s how the GPRC executive responded in 2018.

Allowing Grande Prairie Regional College to grant undergraduate degrees and expand its programs is the right decision and one that our college community has been striving for since it opened its doors 50 years ago. Our college plays an important role in the local community and economy. By offering our own degrees, we’ll be able to continue to meet the demands to attract and retain the region’s top student talent.

—Don Gnatiuk, president and CEO, Grande Prairie Regional College

Here’s how the new executive responded this month:

Today is a momentous day for GPRC, and for the communities we serve! Polytechnic status will empower GPRC to expand our program offerings. We will grow. It positions our institution to meet the labour market needs for highly skilled graduates, and to support the broader aspirations of northwestern Alberta. My thanks to all those who made today possible, with special thanks to Minister Nicolaides.

Glenn Feltham, acting president and CEO, Grande Prairie Regional College

And here are the responses from the RDC executive. First, from 3 years ago:

Allowing Red Deer College to grant degrees autonomously and to move towards university status is the right decision, and one that we have been looking forward to for many years. I thank the government for recognizing the important impact this college has on citizens and communities across central Alberta, and for investing in the future of the institution and its students.

Morris Flewwelling, chair, Red Deer College Board of Governors, 2018

Achieving university status is the realization of a 54-year dream for our institution. The announcement today acknowledges the growth, and evolution of RDC as a mature academic institution. The significance of this day will resonate in the communities of central Alberta for generations to come as we serve learners in new and innovative ways.

Joel Ward, president, Red Deer College

And then this year.

We are very supportive of the polytechnic designation because this model will allow us to build on our strengths to become an ever more innovative institution that will best serve our students, partners, industry and community members. Becoming a polytechnic achieves all of the goals we have had for many years, and it allows us to consider exciting new possibilities for the future.

Guy Pelletier, chair, Red Deer College Board of Governors

The breadth of programs and credentials we will offer as a polytechnic institution are exactly what this region needs. By offering students applied and work-integrated learning across all programs – from trades to our own degrees – we will assist graduates to achieve their goals and be highly employable within the ever-changing needs of the labour market. This is the ideal future for our institution.

Peter Nunoda, president, Red Deer College

I find it intriguing that in both cases, the two colleges said in 2018 that being granted full university status was the “right decision”. Plus, GPRC said that becoming a university was something it “has been striving for since it opened its doors 50 years ago”, and RDC similarly stated that “achieving university status is the realization of a 54-year dream for our institution.”

How do you go from finally achieving your 50-year-old dream to saying that having that dream cancelled “empowers” your institution and is the “ideal future”?

Also intriguing is the claim that this change is responding to market demand. At the end of last year, the Grande Prairie & District Chamber of Commerce released their Regional Labour Market Study. The study reported these as the fastest growing 6 business sectors in the region:

  • Arts, entertainment & recreation
  • Finance & insurance
  • Healthcare & social assistance
  • Information & cultural industries
  • Real estate, rentals & leasing
  • Utilities

Four of those generally require a bachelor’s degree, and some of them even beyond that. Plus, the report also showed that among the top largest job posting sectors are healthcare and professional, scientific, and technical services. Again, at least undergrad degrees.

One final thing I find interesting is that the executive all seemed to have changed over the last 3 years. Glenn Feltham took over as GPRC’s interim president in March, after the previous president (not Don Gnatiuk) stepped down abruptly. Prior to taking over this role, Feltham spent 9 years at NAIT, another polytechnic institution, and he was the dean of the University of Manitoba’s school of business before that.

Feltham retired from NAIT in 2019, but was approached to take on this interim role; although it’s not quite clear by whom. In an interview with Everything Grande Prairie, Feltham indicated the following:

“I have always been a huge believer in, wherever possible, being able to align a post-secondary institution back to the core economy of the region. I think polytechnic education does that particularly well.”

Now where have I heard that before?

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By Kim Siever

Kim Siever is an independent queer journalist based in Lethbridge, Alberta. He writes daily news articles, focusing on politics and labour.

3 replies on “UCP cancels plans for 2 new universities”

You have a factual error in your story. Don Gnatiuk, retired at the end of 2019. His replacement, Bob Murray, resigned suddenly earlier this year.

Bow Valley College has also had almost all of the top leadership turn over in the last two years (down to the deans), including losing a new president who had been with us for only about a year when the UCP took over. Some leadership positions have had more than one change just in the last two years. The previous president, by contrast, had been in the position for 20-some years. There have also been mass layoffs of faculty (2/3 of my old department, which had been the largest).
Draw your own conclusions.

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