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The Yukon University Question, Part 1

September 2011
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One of the most poorly considered campaign platform ideas recently reared its head this when the Yukon Party announced its desire to create the first university in the north in Yukon. I have no problem with the general idea; however, practical application of this raises substantial questions. And, since no cost estimates were attached to the promise, I have to wonder if any planning whatsoever went into this announcement.

The first consideration: what client group is a university intended to serve? If it is aimed to provide an alternative for Yukon students, which of those students will be the target group? What programs will you offer, and which departments and their various specializations will be offered. For example, if you choose to offer a Bachelor of Science degree, which departments will be offered? This list could include Chemistry, Biology, Mathematics, Geology, Psychology, etc. And, should you choose to offer Geology, what specializations within the discipline will you teach? These could include geochemistry, seismology, physical geology, geomorphology, etc.

These questions must be answered early in the game since their answers will dictate how many faculty members, what faculty members, what lab facilities and analytical equipment, how many lab technicians and what expansions to the library will be required. The university departmentsI’ve been in, including one of geology and several of archaeology, usually had a faculty of 20 or more, earning approximately $150,000 plus benefits at the current levels of pay in Canadian universities for a full professor, or approximately $120,000 plus benefits for an Assistant Professor.

Lab resources, such as analytical equipment, are also expensive. Sticking with geology, an ICP-MS for analyzing mineral contents, a basic high precision analysis tool, is over $700,000 to purchase. The technician running the last one I worked with had a PhD and earned a very good salary. A scanning electron microscope costs several hundred thousand dollars and uses $50,000 of argon as part of its function each semester.  Lab equipment, as you may have deduced, is incredibly expensive. This will also need separate labs in which to run them and increased specialized staffing for their function and the capital costs for setting these facilities would involve an incredible amount of money.

Keep in mind that to be credible, a university could not just offer one department so these costs will be multiplied for, say, chemistry and biology departments as well. Analytical equipment for either of these disciplines is equally expensive to buy and to use.

Are we doing this to provide an alternative for Yukon students? This is an important philosophical question, as it points to what we will be subsidizing. Remember that tuitions do not cover the entire cost of running a postsecondary institution. For example, Yukon College tuitions last year amounted to approximately 4% of income. Granted, most universities raise more of their income through tuitions and fees but do so through having substantially higher costs. Tuition at most universities in Canada run approximately $6,000 per year for a full time student, compared to about $3,200 for full time tuition the College presently charges.

It’s also been a while since I’ve seen the number of Yukoners who actually leave the territory to go to university outside. The Department of Education did maintain a watch on this number. The last time I saw it, there were fewer than 300 potential university students. And, having been young myself and having had the opportunity to leave home rather than attend local postsecondary institutions, I was one of the “couldn’t wait to leave” group. It is reasonable to assume for just the “exotic” reason alone, not all of the potential students would attend a Yukon university. You must also remember the range of subjects available and many potential students would be taking programs not offered locally.

The alternative is to offer programs in hopes to attract students from outside. This opens a contentious issue. Do we want to subsidize the education of large numbers of non-Yukon students? When you are potentially making the Department of Education one of the largest budget items for the territorial government, should this be consciously done for the benefit of people outside your tax base? Any government considering do so should be prepared for a fair amount of fiery rhetoric on this topic alone.

I’ll move on to more reasons in Part 2 sometime tomorrow. Keep in mind that, other than some practical issues, I have nothing against the concept of a new university here, other than the minor problem that it just won’t work in practical application…

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