NLC forging ahead despite funding cut

If you’re looking for hands-on training in power engineering, look no further than Northern Lakes College. Pictured is NLC’s Shell Canada Power Engineering and Technology Centre in Peace River.

Rather than worrying about budgets, NLC brass highlights many success stories coming from operations

Joe McWilliams
For South Peace News

It may not be quite ‘business as usual’ at Northern Lakes College, given a three per cent reduction in provincial funding.

But asked about it, both the NLC board chair and president paint a picture of forging ahead confidently.

It’s not as if we didn’t know it was coming, says Dan Vandermeulen, chair of the board of governors [and former NLC president].

It’s a matter of figuring out how the cut “gets spread out”.

He offers no details.

As for tuitions, that’s a tricky question. There’ll be a lot of consultations before any decisions are made, Vandermeulen says.

“We’re not going to raise tuitions just to raise money. The name of the game is still enrollment.”

College president Ann Everatt, when asked about budget impact, had this to say.

“We have taken the opportunity to create efficiencies and to be more effective in our programming and as a result we have restructured in a number of departments to reduce expense while maintaining services at the same level. Throughout this process we are focused on maintaining or enhancing our student supports and delivering quality programs that meet regional labour market demand.”

That sounds encouraging. Could it result in layoffs?

If the experience of Mount Royal University in Calgary is anything to go by, it certainly could. According to a Nov. 25 CBC News article, Mount Royal was cutting 10 positions, with more likely to follow.

But there’s lots going on in the world of NLC beyond pesky budget headaches, and that’s what Vandermeulen wants to talk about. For starters, he says, we’re not the small college people think we are.

“People never see the entirety. They don’t see how we’ve changed over the years.”

In many communities in the north central part of the province, the NLC ‘campus’ might not be anything more than a trailer. In a few communities – Slave Lake, High Prairie, Peace River, High Level – it has a more substantial physical presence.

And getting more substantial by the day in High Prairie, where construction on the new campus proceeds.

“We’ve become the distance learning college for Northern Alberta,” Vandermeulen says. “Perhaps all of Alberta.”

By way of example, Vandermeulen offers a recent social work diploma program. It had 120 participants, “from south of Lethbridge to north of Hay River.”

Or how about this as another example? In partnership with the University of Calgary, NLC is offering the first two years of a Bachelor of Education degree.

“Our students can stay at home,” says Vandermeulen. “Do their courses online.”

This ‘distance’ model makes such education accessible to people for whom relocating to a city to go to college might not be an option.

“Our typical student is 28, with a family,” Vandermeulen says, “who has decided, ‘I want to improve my chances.’ Our students have a much bigger challenge relocating. So we offer them a chance to do it without relocating. They gobble it up.”

So that’s the basic model, and it appears to be working. Many of the programs require students to attend one of the larger campuses for hands-on lab work. That’s where the specialized facilities in Peace River, Slave Lake and High Prairie [once it gets built] come in.

Peace River, for example has a power engineering lab serving that popular program for the past several years. Students take the course online in locations all over the map, but come to Peace River for the labs. In 2018-19 there were 87 people registered in the various levels of power engineering – only five of them were actually from Peace River, but all of them would have spent time there.

High Prairie’s new campus will feature a culinary arts facility – something new for the college. It will serve the students in the same way as the power engineering ‘hub’ in Peace River. They’ll come there to do their hands-on labs.

And by the way, says Vandermeulen, it’s worth mentioning the new building will be ‘net zero’ in its energy demands, running off geo-thermal heat from below.

“The only gas line going into that building is for the kitchen area.”

High Prairie’s campus is designed for distance learning – not the traditional classroom model which what Slave Lake’s NLC campus is. In most of the communities with a campus, it’s a place where academic upgrading is offered, and there’s a person offering counselling and other types of student support.

But regular classroom instruction seems to be the exception rather than the rule today. These smaller campuses are in Wabasca, Peerless/Trout, Driftpile, Atikameg, Gift Lake, Grouard, Peavine, Cadotte Lake, Loon River, Fort Vermilion, Chateh and Valleyview. Community Access Points [CAP] exist in La Crete, Paddle Prairie, East Prairie, McLennan and Fox Creek. Where enrollment numbers warrant, those could be upgraded to campus status, Vandermeulen says. Another thing the college is getting into is dual credit. High school students take college-level courses while in high school and get both high school and college credit.

And as in some of the other college programs, the geographical regions don’t seem to matter much.

“We’ve got dual credit with 15 school divisions – as far south as Leduc,” Vandermeulen says.

How does that happen?

“As soon as you go online, they find you,” he says. “They’re looking for something a little more flexible.”

Speaking of being outside the usual boundaries, NLC has partnerships with other colleges in Grande Prairie, Lloydminster and Fort McMurray on the practical nurse program. Of the 135 people enrolled in that last year, 62 were in Grande Prairie.

“It’s like having a secret campus in Grande Prairie,” Vandermeulen says. “We don’t advertise outside our zone, but they find you.”

So, if you offer it online, with a decent amount of support, they will come. It’s important that students – despite doing most of the courses online – “have some sense of being a member of a group,” Vandermeulen says.

That’s what NLC strives to achieve through its ‘supported distance learning’ [SDL] model.

How things are going to look in the new year with a recently-announced three per cent funding cut from the province remains to be seen. Vandermeulen says they knew it was coming, and it’s a matter of figuring out how the cut “gets spread out.”

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