Costing an Inuit University

September 04, 2015,  Alex Usher 
There is an interesting initiative afoot to create something called the Inuit Nunangat University. A workshop report on the concept is here. Today, I thought I would contribute to the debate by looking at what such an initiative might cost.

Some background: the idea of an Arctic university is not new. Many people have noted that Canada is the only member of the Arctic Council that does not have a university north of the Arctic Circle. This largely has to do with a lack of major population centres, but no matter. The Gordon Foundation wrote about this problem a few years ago. At the time, my take on it was that the Arctic could probably support a small university on the model of the University of Greenland - roughly a dozen faculty working mainly in language and culture, with a bit of professional programming (i.e. BEds) thrown in.

Now, this new proposed university is somewhat hazy regarding scope (not surprising given that, at the moment, it's just a workshop report). It's clear given that the proposal is for an Inuit university, rather than a University of Nunavut, that culture and language are going to be at the centre of the institutional mission: this proposal is less a University of the Arctic than it is an Inuit version of First Nations University. Clearly, the authors have some big hopes for the future - programs in Science, Medicine, and Engineering are proposed - but equally clearly, any northern university is going to be fairly small for a long time. The Inuit population of Canada is about 72,000; the population of Nunavut is about 35,000. The territory only churns out about 240 high school graduates each year, and the local college (Nunavut Arctic College) already enrols about 1,300 students per year. And some university-bound students will choose a southern university regardless of local options. Put all that together and you're very unlikely to see enrolments at such a university reach 1,000 for a long time, and 500 is probably a more realistic upper band.

In Canada, there are a number of similarly-sized stand-alone universities. For instance, there is Université Ste. Anne (370 FT students), Canadian Mennonite University (480 FT), and The King's University, Alberta (670 FT students). And while these universities are usually pretty tight for money, they are all viable. But they don't have research programs to speak of, and they definitely don't have Engineering or Medical schools attached to them. These sorts of professional schools simply aren't feasible without much larger student numbers.

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For argument's sake, let's say a future Inuit Nunagat University ends up at about 600 students. That's close to the size of King's University in Alberta, which somehow (honestly not sure how they do it) manages to staff faculties of Arts, Social Science, Science, and Business with about 45 full-time professors, on an annual operating budget (in 2013-14) that was just shy of $14 million. That's about $21,500 per student - but it doesn't include any programs that might be considered "high-cost". It also assumes you can do all your programming in a single spot, rather than via distance education and community delivery; but that's anathema in a territory that spans 2 million square miles and three time zones. And there's also the fact that staff costs are higher in the north.

To get a sense of what kind of adjustment factor you'd need to make to translate the $21,500 into a Nunavut context, consider the case of Nunavut Arctic College. It provides programming in something like 25 locations across the territory, and does so at a cost of about $41,000 per student (excluding free services provided to the college by the Government of Nunavut, which would add another $7,700 or so). That's roughly two and a half times the per-student cost of college in the rest of the country. So it seems fair to assume that a King's-like institution would cost about $21,500 x 2.5 = $53,500 per student. And that's just for low-cost programs: no medicine, or engineering, or anything like that. Total annual cost? About $32 million. And that's before you get to any capital expenditures, or any of the other things on the workshop wish-list, like low tuition, grants, student housing, etc.

Now $32 million is a mind-bogglingly huge amount in the context of Nunavut own-source tax revenues, which are only about $180 million per year. But since close to 90% of the Nunavut budget comes from Ottawa, it is actually only equal to a little under 2% of the entire territorial budget. That's still not a small ask, but it is in the realm of the financially possible, provided ambitions around program offerings remain modest.

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