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Why Canada's University of the Arctic failed

Heather Exner-PirotEye on the Arctic

In October, Canada's federal government announced that it will be cutting its funding to the University of the Arctic from a current annual rate of $700,00 to $150,000.  Some commentators presented this as evidence that the federal government does not care, or does not care very much, about northern education.  One might wonder instead why the federal government, and in particular the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT), was supporting UArctic in the North instead of the three territorial governments, education being a provincial/territorial responsibility after all.

As many readers know, Canada is the only circumpolar country not to have a university in its Arctic region.  This is inevitably linked to the fact that Canada’s northern population is sparser and smaller than that of any of its seven Arctic neighbors, and so a northern university would be more expensive to run, staff and operate, and still be hundreds of thousands of kilometers away from the bulk of its intended students.  Thus, when UArctic came about as a means to reflect and support growing international cooperation in the Arctic region in the 1990s, it was only natural that Canada supported UArctic’s undergraduate program, the Bachelor of Circumpolar Studies (BCS), rather than one of its other programs, such as an international student exchange program, administration, field schools or research.  DFAIT supported the BCS program for eight years.  Part of the reason it failed is because no one else did.

The role of UArctic

UArctic’s central philosophy was that colleges and universities in the circumpolar north would do more by pooling resources, rather than trying to offer full programming to small numbers of students in very remote locations – a difficult and expensive task.  It also sought to take advantage of the opportunities offered by technology, bridging distances by using online courses to offer high quality courses to those in communities thousands of kilometers from a university.  But it is not, and never was, a degree granting institution.  It was meant to provide extra opportunities for university credit to students in existing northern institutions, and support the laddering of credit from northern colleges into southern universities which could offer degrees.  The BCS program has only ever included seven courses, to be supplemented with enough other courses to earn a full degree.  This was a task for the participating institutions, not the federal government.  It is a task that remains unfulfilled (although some colleges and universities are currently working on articulation agreements to support this laddering).  Thus UArctic has not yet offered an easy and straightforward way for northerners to get a degree. 

The challenges of distance education

This is not from lack of effort or concern, but from the sheer difficulty of the task.  It is one thing to offer online courses to northerners – it is quite another to provide the support that will allow them to pass those courses.  Distance education is a good alternative to no education, but it can also be very isolating.  Students generally only succeed when they have access to tutors and can commit to a program full-time, especially when pursuing a degree which takes four years in the best circumstances.  Because those who want or need to stay in their communities, rather than travel south for their education, generally do so because they can’t afford it, are already working, or have family obligations, the obstacles to successfully completing an entire degree are significant.  This is all compacted by the often inferior high school education that is available in the North, making university-level courses very difficult.  The UArctic was no panacea to these challenges; neither will a bricks and mortar university be.  But progress has been made.

The value of arts education

As to why the territories never supported UArctic financially, I can only guess that it is because they were pouring every extra penny they had into their own post-secondary institutions: Yukon College, Aurora College and Nunavut Arctic College.  Like most colleges, these have focused on certificate and diploma programs in areas that translate immediately into jobs in the skilled labour-starved north.  UArctic has been criticized for being interesting but not useful, although that is a criticism I will defend it from.  Arts programs like the BCS don’t lead obviously to any one particular job, but they do provide the analytical, critical thinking and writing skills required by the expansive northern public sector.  These positions are frequently filled by teachers, education degrees being the only degree reliably offered in the North.  But northern development is like a house that requires many tools, and an arts education is one of them. 

UArctic has failed in Canada, but it is not dead; the BCS program still exists and is still being taken by many students in Canada – the numbers, in fact, are growing.  The undergraduate office that the federal government supported will move to another country, but Canadian students and institutions can still take advantage of the network.  With or without UArctic the idea of pooling resources to enhance educational opportunities in the North is a good, and necessary one, and one that every  Canadian UArctic member remains committed to.

Heather Exner-Pirot is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Calgary, interested in Arctic security, circumpolar relations and northern governance issues. She is a former program assistant with the University of the Arctic Undergraduate Office.

This analysis is posted on Alaska Dispatch as part of Eye on the Arctic, a collaborative partnership between public and private circumpolar media organizations. The views are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Alaska Dispatch welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.