Federal cuts to a unique effort to provide higher education in Canada's Arctic are renewing debate about how to bring much-needed training, skills and human development to northerners.
The loss of almost all of its money from Ottawa means the University of the Arctic — which offers distance education through more than 100 institutions around the circumpolar world — will have to scale back its Canadian presence at a time when the need for better educational opportunities in the North has never been greater.
"We're at a little bit of an impasse," said Hayley Hesseln, the consortium's dean of undergraduate admissions, based at the University of Saskatchewan.
"What we've come down to now is a matter of different values and different needs."
None of the world's 50 universities located north of the 60th parallel is in Canada and that lack has been loudly decried by former governors general Adrienne Clarkson and Michaelle Jean. Higher education in the North has been a federal goal since the last Liberal government.
The need for everyone from nurses to administrators has long been pointed out by industry and government. Nunavut can't fully staff its civil service because too few Inuit have the appropriate education.
"Everyone's on the same page with this," said James Stauch of the Walter and Duncan Gordon Foundation, which works to improve Arctic governance and civil society. "Whether it's industry, whether it's young people themselves, whether it's government leaders, everyone's saying, 'Capacity, capacity, capacity.'"
The University of the Arctic was an attempt to address that lack by creating a worldwide network of educational institutions that could offer online courses to students across the circumpolar region. Each institution's offerings would be complemented by the Arctic university's own curriculum.
Founded in 2001, the network now boasts 121 institutions, 33 of them Canadian. UArctic has had more than 10,000 registrations for its courses since 2002, said Hesseln.
"You have a lot of aboriginal students in the North and they don't do as well when they come to a large southern institution. They will be more successful taking these courses online in their own communities."
There have been eight Canadian UArctic grads since the first class in 2006. One became the first female chief of her band. Another ran a large government department. Another entered federal politics.
Although UArctic gets funding from the Finnish and Norwegian governments, the Canadian government has always been one of its biggest backers. Taxpayers contributed about $3.8 million between 2004 and 2010.
But earlier this year, Ottawa informed the university that its funding would be chopped to about $150,000 from more than $700,000. The reason, said Hesseln, was that the three territorial governments have never chipped in any of their own cash, which was a condition for long-term federal commitment.
As a result, Hesseln's job will be taken over by someone outside the country at the end of the year. Although Canadian institutions will continue to participate, Canada will lose its voice in curriculum development and Canadian students will find it that much harder to take advantage of the program, she said.
The territories prefer to concentrate on their own institutions, said Brent Slobodin, the Yukon's assistant deputy minister of education.
"We only have so many resources. What basket do we put them into?" he asked. "The preferred option is to do what we can to evolve Yukon College."
Government of Nunavut spokeswoman Emily Woods said that territory remains open to supporting UArctic.
"No decisions have been made not to support UArctic," she said.
Brokering university degrees through territorial colleges and eventually upgrading them to degree-granting institutions is better than online education through southern institutions, Slobodin suggested. As well, UArctic's international links detracted from local needs.
"It wasn't necessarily going to meet local concerns."
UArctic figures show about half its students are Canadian and about one-third are from the circumpolar North.
Stauch points out that means most UArctic students are actually southern undergraduates.
"The capacity gap in the North is not being address by University of the Arctic," he said.
Slobodin said a report is expected early next month that will make recommendations on how northern governments should develop local opportunities for higher education. Those recommendations will go to a committee representing all three territories to examine the issue.