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End Of An Era

Grande Prairie Regional College shuts down locations across the West Yellowhead

Masha Scheele
Local Journalism Initiative

Grande Prairie Regional College (GPRC) announced last week they would not reopen their physical location in Hinton, marking the end of an almost 40 year era of on-site education services in the West Yellowhead.

The 2020-21 Budget was passed unanimously by the GPRC Board of Governors at its May 12 meeting, in which they were challenged to find efficiencies and opportunities to modernize, meet budget targets, and reduce expenditures from $73 million in 2019-20 to $65 million in 2020-21, stated Dr. Robert Murray, GPRC president and CEO.

The provincial government announced in February that all post-secondary institutions would see a decrease in their Campus Alberta Grants, which lead to a 13 per cent reduction in the 2020-21 budget year for GPRC.

Laurie Chandler, press secretary of Advanced Education in Alberta, stated that Alberta spends far more than other provinces. Alberta spends $36,500 per full-load equivalent (FLE) while British Columbia spends $31,300, Ontario spends $21,500, and Quebec spends $25,800. 

“If we spent at the same rate as British Columbia we would save taxpayers over $700 million per year. Alberta needs to balance its need for delivering world-class education while also ensuring taxpayer dollars are used effectively,” stated Chandler.

She added there were only 16.86 FLEs attending classes in West Yellowhead classrooms in the 2019-2020 academic year, down nearly 50 per cent from two years ago. 

Murray said the West Yellowhead learning centres were low-enrolled, serving fewer than 20 FLE students at an annual cost of $970,000.

Chandler said these savings will allow GPRC to invest in an online delivery platform that will reach students across the stewardship region and beyond, without having to maintain physical classroom spaces that are not accessible to all students.

The GPRC Hinton Learning Centre has been closed to the public since March 2020 when the global COVID-19 pandemic hit and has been offering online programming for students since that closure.

GPRC’s stewardship region was expanded in 2011 to include Hinton, but Hinton had access to post-secondary education through Yellowhead Region Education Consortium (YREC) since the 1980s.

Shelly Cardiff began work in the local post-secondary setting in April 2000 with YREC as a program coordinator before leaving only a couple years ago.

She said that using provincial funding, staff brokered programs from a variety of colleges and universities including U of A, MacEwan U, NAIT, GPRC, NorQuest College, Keyano College, and Northern Lakes College. 

“Through provincial reorganizations, we were moved under the administration of NorQuest College, and then to GPRC,” she said.

Cardiff coordinated and facilitated post-secondary credit and non-credit programming in Hinton, Edson, Jasper and Grande Cache.

“Jack Pleckaitis was the initiator of post-secondary in our region and he was the Executive Director of YREC when it was first initiated in 1982,” said Cardiff.

She stated that communities are strengthened by training local people locally, and that the whole region benefited from the new training taken. 

The local hospital is currently staffed with grads from the nursing programs; various social service organizations are being served by grads from the social work programs; businesses are being run by grads from business programs; children in daycares and schools are being taught by grads from the early learning and educational assistant programs; trucks are being driven in the region by grads from the driver training program; and offices are being run by grads from office administration programs, Cardiff added.

“This doesn’t even scratch the surface of all the people who accessed the facilities for study space or exam supervision services while they studied in a distance-delivered program. Our numbers weren’t overwhelming, but the difference we made in our students’ lives was,” Cardiff said.

Scott Kovatch, economic development officer for the Town of Hinton, said that a local post-secondary institution typically provides three key benefits to a community -human capital development, labour market development and intellectual capital development.

“Long term, post secondary institutions increase salaries in communities in turn generate more disposable income for residents,” he added.

“This is a loss that will be noted.”

Mark Evans, communications and marketing director at GPRC, stated that enrollment trends have been consistently low in the West Yellowhead region.

“With the new accessible, modern and inclusion online platform GPRC is launching in its recently announced partnership with Athabasca University, GPRC will better serve students in the West Yellowhead region online from the comfort of their own homes and boost enrolment,” said Evans. He added that the variety of programs and courses offered by GPRC in Hinton were based on student demand and will still be available for students to enrol in through online delivery.

Tashia Lepage, an instructor in Hinton for GPRC who will be laid off due to the changes, stated that depending on the year, she taught between ten to 12 students. Without the ability to go down to the college, see an instructor, and even get help with signing up or paying fees, Lepage doesn’t think people understand the impact it will have.

“Not everyone has the ability to learn online, it’s a hard thing to do. You have to have a lot of determination to finish,” she said.

All local students of GPRC already use online platforms throughout their courses, but they always had the help of an instructor to fall back on.

“It’s unlimited potential for the people who are looking for post-secondary education, not everybody has the ability to move away and can afford it so it brought quality post-secondary to the area. It will be devastating to see that go,” Lepage said.

Cardiff believes that once local post-secondary is gone, it won’t come back, and individuals who have the choice to leave for training will leave.

“Unfortunately, it will be unlikely that many will come back to our region. Individuals who don’t have the choice to leave may attempt online learning as an option, which is what is being offered as the alternative,” she said.

Cardiff and Lepage both pointed out that online training will work for some, but others are finding out right now, through the current online teaching due to COVID-19, that online learning can be difficult and it is not the way everyone learns most effectively. 

“So some will simply not be able to access the new skills nor credentials they need to move ahead with their goals since they can’t leave the community. And our community will suffer for it,” Cardiff said.

Lepage added that new graduates coming from high school don’t know what to expect and were maybe hoping to study from home next year due to the pandemic.

“They no longer have the ability to go down to the local college to take classes, they have to do it all online,” Lepage said.

Not only will new graduates be affected by the changes, but Lepage said she has taught many moms who were coming back into the workforce after staying at home with kids and wanted to upgrade their skills.

“I’m just really sad for the community. I will find another job, I do have skills and I know I can get something,” Lepage said.

Lepage worked for GPRC for seven years, and is currently teaching online until the end of the month.

She found out half an hour before GPRC’s public announcement that her position would no longer exist after her contract finishes at the end of this month. Prior to GPRC, she taught the office administration program through YREC for two years.

“I always tell my students that knowledge is power. And GPRC has now taken away their ability to gain that power because they cut our programs,” Lepage said.

Cardiff added that she hopes other learning organizations in the community will be able to step up and support adult students in this more challenging learning landscape. GPRC would not say how many employees would be laid off as they do not publicly discuss private and personal matters that directly affect employees.

Online learning at GPRC will continue to expand going into the future with the recently announced partnership between the College and Athabasca University on a modern and accessible online management system, said Danielle Smith, GPRC public relations specialist.

Most courses are immediately being offered online through GPRC, although Smith and Evans would not specify which courses are offered. Contact Student Services for more information at 780-539-2911 or