Should Nunavut build a university?

Does Canada need an Arctic university? The answer to that question is yes.


When James Nasso, the chair of Agnico Eagle’s board of directors, declared April 10 that his firm would donate $5 million to a future Nunavut university, a sympathetic audience of mining symposium delegates gave him a standing ovation.

When we published the ensuing story on our website, the issue provoked more than 90 comments, offering a variety of opinions that ranged from delirious support to jaundiced skepticism.

That’s all healthy. It’s evident that for Nunavut, building even a small university represents the financial equivalent of building a small to medium sized territorial government department from scratch. So it’s reasonable for Nunavut residents to ask that their government disclose how they intend to plan and finance it.

To understand the scale of such a project, take a look at some existing universities.

Bishop’s University in Lennoxville, Que., one of Canada’s smallest, serves about 2,400 undergraduates and employs 125 full-time professors who earn a median salary — according to a 2011 Statistics Canada report — of $92,701 a year, which is actually on the low end of the scale for Canadian academics.

The University of Greenland, one of the smallest public universities in the world, offers a more useful comparison. In 2010, they reported 443 full-time students. To serve them, they employed 118 teachers and support workers.

To function, universities need lots of people. And they also need land and buildings, to house lecture halls, seminar rooms, laboratories, libraries, bookstores, daycares and administrative offices.

In Nunavut, a new university would also need housing, and lots of it, for students and staff alike. All of this infrastructure must be heated, powered and maintained, year after year.

Nunavut Arctic College contains a few small pieces of infrastructure — and students — that it could likely share with a university. And the federal government’s $142.4 million Canadian High Arctic Research Station, soon to be constructed in Cambridge Bay, will contain assets that could likely serve the teaching of hard sciences.

Nunavut must still build much more on its own, but that’s not impossible. In spite its small capital budgets, the territory can likely afford to build or lease the extra buildings a university would require.

But it’s the year-to-year operating costs that pose the biggest problem. Ask any university administrator in southern Canada, where many institutions of higher learning struggle to make ends meet.

Consider also that across Canada, university professors earn a median annual salary of $112,862. This means the 100 or so staff members required for even a tiny institution similar to the University of Greenland would represent a payroll of least $13.5 million a year and likely more, given that Nunavut must offer higher salaries and benefits than most other jurisdictions.

After that, add the cost of heat, electrical power, maintenance, staff housing and student financial assistance.

This suggests that to run even a tiny university, Nunavut must find at least $30 million a year from within its operating budget. That’s roughly equal to the current annual cost of running Arctic College, which employs about 200 people and, as of 2013-14, spends about $32 million annually.

All this means the people of Nunavut will never see a university until the Government of Nunavut creates a credible financial plan — backed by firm commitments from other partners, not the least of which is the federal government.

The next question is this: does Canada need another “northern” university?

The answer to that question is no. Within the mid-northern regions of the provinces, you can already find a number of northern universities.

That list includes English language institutions like the University of Northern British Columbia, Athabasca University, Lakehead University, as well as Laurentian University, which is English-French bilingual. And if you want to study in French, you can attend the Université du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue, or UQAT, which runs campuses in Val d’Or and Rouyn-Noranda.

Many of these institutions offer programs designed for Aboriginal peoples, especially First Nations, and most are part of UArctic , the Arctic Council’s virtual university for circumpolar peoples.

But does Canada need an Arctic university? The answer is yes.

Many universities in Canada do teaching and research on a variety of Arctic-related subjects, from linguistics to climatology. But no single institution in Canada offers an Arctic-specific focus. And no Canadian university maintains any year-round functions north of the treeline.

For that, there’s another model: the University of Lapland, located at about the same latitude as Iqaluit in Rovaniemi, a small Finnish city with a population of about 60,000. About 8,000 undergraduate students study there.

And the University of Lapland’s Arctic Centre offers a non-degree course called the Arctic Studies Program, which attracts students from around the circumpolar world, including Nunavut. Tuition is free.

So it’s not unreasonable for Canada, and Nunavut, to contemplate the eventual creation of a similar institution.

To that end, Nunavut must first make some big decisions. For example, does cash-strapped Nunavut wish to proceed on its own, or with other partners?

In the fall of 2011, Yukon Premier Dennis Pasloski, promised, in his government’s re-election campaign, to create a Yukon University. His proposal floats the possibility of teaming up with Nunavut and the Northwest Territories to build a pan-Arctic university system.

At the same time, the federal government has slashed Canada’s financial contribution to the international UArctic program, from about $700,000 to only $150,000 a year.

Some have attributed this to the northern premiers’ growing interest in a pan-territorial institution. Is this in Nunavut’s best interest?

Other questions include what to teach, what to research, and when. Linguistics and cultural studies? Business and commerce? Geology? Health sciences? Political science? At least three current Arctic College programs — environmental technology, nursing and teaching — already offer paths to university degrees granted by southern institutions. That looks like the best place to start.

A Nunavut university must also accept students from outside Nunavut and Canada. If it doesn’t, it can’t call itself a real university. Besides, tuition paid by out-of-territory residents could supply badly-needed revenues.

Let’s not forget that a real university must possess a governance structure that is independent of government. And it must also offer non-negotiable, iron-clad protections for academic freedom. If the Government of Nunavut can’t commit to those principles, the project won’t be worth doing. JB

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