Recent History – 1999
March 30, 1999
By Mike Leschart, Daily News Staff
Over nearly 25 years at Northern Lights College, both programs and students have come and gone. The educational and intellectual composition of the institution has gone through numerous alterations and revamps since its inception in 1975. Some programs have seen their demise, and others have been introduced.
To an extent, the changes reflect a trend toward the practical aspects of education. Discontinued music and drama programs have been replaced by welding, carpentry and cook training.
But nursing, dental assistant and agriculture programs have also been removed from the calendar, with oil and gas power processing, land and resource management and commercial transport programs taking their place.
According to college President Jim Kassen, change is an essential part of doing business. The ever-evolving curriculum reflects the dynamic state of northern B.C.’s industry. The cancelled programs are usually the result of declining student numbers and rising costs.
“If we have a lot of people beating on our doors saying they want this, or they want that, that’s what we try to offer,” he says.
Increasingly, prospective students are not requesting to take arts and humanities courses, but are coming to the college asking one simple question – what’s the quickest route to a well-paying job?
This trend necessitates changes, and Kassen says the college’s program repertoire reflects this. While the college does offer two-year university transferrable [programs], the trend is inevitably toward industrial and vocational training.
“People are not here for a liberal education as much as they used to be,” Kassen says. “I guess not by choice has there been less of an emphasis on that, because a high percentage of people are coming to us and saying, ‘what are you going to do to help me get a job?'” Still, he says, the college tries to maintain an interest in arts and culture.
A strong Visual and Graphic Communication Arts program has managed to retain a focus on the pure ‘artsy’ elements of painting and printmaking while still producing employable students.
Instructor-Coordinator Laine Dahlen says emerging students will find employment in a broad range of companies, from animation to advertising.
“If you talk to most professionals, they’ll say the most employable people are coming out of arts programs, because they’re free-thinking, they think on their feet and they’re not slotted into one stream,” he says.
The college also encourages special appearances which provide an artistic flavour. The recent reading and lecture given by nationally-recognized Canadian poet Lorna Crozier is one example. Creative writing and women’s studies students filled a classroom to hear the poet read and discuss her work.
But realistically, the college is not a university, and has neither interest from students nor the resources to offer more comprehensive university courses. Despite this, NLC is a relatively inexpensive place to earn the first two years of a university degree.
Students can pick up a first-year English class, for instance, for $112. Tuition for a full year will cost $1,000 less than Grande Prairie Regional College, and far less than the University of Alberta or Calgary.
Still, Kassen understands that university transfer courses will never be the college’s primary focus. Industry in Northern B.C. will always need skilled employees, and major corporations like BC Hydro and Westcoast Energy are interested in helping to produce programs that will churn them out.
In fact, the focus has been on career training since the institute’s beginning in 1965. The college was initially a vocational school, which later absorbed academic classes and other programs after it evolved into NLC in 1975.
Before that, the land the college rests on was occupied by a military base, and many of the old army buildings are still in use. The dorm rooms, for instance, were once barracks.
The college now has 26 full-time programs and many part-time courses offered at eight campuses spread across northeastern B.C. Campuses are found in more remote locations such as Atlin, Dease Lake, and Hudson’s Hope, along with Chetwynd, Tumbler Ridge, Fort Nelson, Fort St. John and Dawson Creek.
Through the years, partnerships with industry, local businesses and other post-secondary institutions have become critical to the college’s success. This is true because of the cost of maintaining certain programs, and because tuition money covers [only] a small portion of these costs.
Unlike the situation in Alberta where colleges and universities have seen drastic funding cuts, and have become increasingly reliant on fundraising initiatives, Kassen says the B.C. government has not been as harsh. The province contributes about 75 per cent of operating costs, 12 per cent comes from tuition, and the rest filters in from business donations and sponsorships.
Paul Dampier, secretary of the Northern Lights College Foundation, says the money coming in can be funelled toward students or specific programs. Often, this involves a company investing in a program that will produce recruitable students, but it also means that organizations like the Rotary Club or Women’s Institute can contribute to programs they have an interest in.
“There’s no question that local businesses, industry as well as organizations… have been fantastically supportive of us,” he says.
Despite the obvious competition for students from GPRC and Western Canadian universities, Kassen says this element does not affect the kind of recruiting done.
Students funnel in from across Western Canada and the world. Last year, 150 students came from Alberta to take classes at NLC, and 69 came from other countries, primarily Japan.
The college also boasts a relatively high participation rate, as 9,444 different students took one class or more from NLC last year, which represents about one quarter of the adult population living near one of the campuses. Because many of these were part-time students, last year’s total of full-time students is only 1,393.
So despite the proximity of a larger college with several degree programs, Kassen says his school can stay competitive on its own — simply by offering different alternatives.
“There’s nothing that we do directly to approach the whole issue of competition. Grande Prairie has gone much more the academic route,” he says.
These alternatives are formed largely by the college’s specialty programs. For instance, students come from across Canada and the world to study aircraft maintenance engineering.
Kassen biggest challenge, he says, does not come from competition — it comes from the government. While the province has maintained the level of funding over the last few years, there have been no major increases, despite the recent decision to freeze tuition rates for the fourth year in a row.
“Inflation is creeping up and even though the B.C government has been relatively good to us, we’re still feeling it,” he says. “There’s a lot more we could do with more money.”
This article is taken from the Peace River Block Daily News, Dawson Creek, with the permission of the publisher. The Daily News retains all rights relating to this material. The information in this article is intended solely for research or general interest purposes.