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Plans for an Arctic university in works

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The world's only northern nation without some form of Arctic university soon may have three of them.

There are plans in all three of Canada's territories to give their residents a better shot at higher education.

Yukon, the Northwest Territories, and Nunavut all have different approaches but similar goals.

All want to give their youth a chance to learn without having to travel thousands of kilometres. All want to focus on the needs of their particular jurisdictions.

And all believe the north has characteristics—from language diversity to climate change—that could make an Arctic university a draw for students and researchers from around the globe.

“We have a lot to offer,” said Caroline Cochrane, the N.W.T's minister of education.

The idea of a northern university has been kicked around since at least 2007, when a pan-territorial survey found residents wanted more influence over Arctic research.

Northern First Nations have been asking for one for 50 years.

Arctic colleges offer northern students degree programs such as education and nursing. But the programs are run and degrees awarded by southern institutions.

Now, northerners are taking control of their own post-secondary education. Yukon likely is to be first out of the academic gate.

“We've got three degrees lined up,” said Karen Barnes, president of Yukon College, soon to be Yukon University.

This September, the institution will offer its first three bachelor's programs under its own name instead of those brokered through another university.

One will be in indigenous governance, taking advantage of expertise in Yukon's 11 self-governing First Nations.

The second will be a business degree focused on operating in remote communities.

The third will be in northern studies—traditional knowledge, culture, history, and current situation of northerners.

“A lot of universities have offered degrees in northern studies but this will be the first one actually offered in the north,” noted Barnes.

Also this fall, the N.W.T. legislature will consider an extensive report on the territory's Aurora College that recommends a Northern Canada Polytechnic University that would combine bachelor's and applied studies with a community college to support secondary schools.

A search is on for someone to lead that transition, said Cochrane.

“I think a university is needed within the N.W.T.,” she added.

The Eastern Arctic also is moving ahead.

By October, Nunavut Arctic College hopes to announce a partnership with a southern institution.

It wants to broaden the college's current offerings with a view toward the administrative needs of government and the technical requirements of the resource industry.

Eleven southern universities have applied to be that partner, said Jesse Jacobs, the college's director of planning.

“What we're really looking for in a partner institution is to take Inuit traditional knowledge and ensure that we are able to put it into credentials that are recognized nationally,” he noted.

Cultural relevance is prominent in the plans of all three institutions. Often, southern course materials just don't work in the north.

Language will be a big part. Jacobs said his college's partnered programs will be taught in Inuktut—the term used for all dialects spoken by the Inuit.

Just offering post-secondary courses in the north is a big deal. Travel to study elsewhere is a major cost and cultural disincentive for potential students, Cochrane said.

“A lot are intimidated by southern universities," she noted. "It's hard when you come from a [tiny] community to all of a sudden walk into a community of millions.”

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