By Aloma Jardine
As appeared on page A1

Changing with the times is what the New Brunswick Community College system is all about and more change seems to be on the way. The launch of the Commission on Post-Secondary Education in New Brunswick in January was one sign the province sees the need for a little evolution.

What exactly that might mean for community colleges hasn’t yet been revealed, but earlier this week the Opposition Conservatives raised concerns about rumoured program cuts to the network. Ed Doherty, post-secondary and training minister, refused to refute the claims saying the department is studying the entire college system.

One of the programs rumoured to be on the chopping block is the Applied Internet Programming course at CCNB Dieppe. That worries Dave Day, electronic supervisor for Co-op Atlantic. Co-op Atlantic has hired one graduate from the program but Day says he was expecting to hire more in the future.

“I find it very alarming actually, when the job placement is very high, the classroom is full,” he says. “If anything they should be promoting the program more.”

It would be a mistake to cancel the program if government is serious about trying to keep young people in the province, he added.

“It’s still always nice to know there’s new programming graduates coming out,” he said. “With this program being cut, I don’t know where they would be coming from.”

But the province shouldn’t be afraid of cutting community college programs experiencing dwindling enrolment and outdated classes, says an Atlantic Canadian think-tank.

Charles Cirtwill, acting president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, says government should focus on investing its money in programs that meet the need of today’s workforce.

“If you’re cutting a program that, for example, has lost 50 per cent of its enrolment over the last couple of years, absolutely it makes sense,” he says. “If you’re cutting a program that’s offered by four other institutions in the province, why not cut it? The question is what are they cutting and is it available elsewhere and are there alternative ways to pay for it?”

In question period on Thursday, Doherty said he has received letters of support from numerous companies. Officials from his department are speaking with those business officials to survey whether they’re committed to hiring graduates, he added.

Cirtwill says the private sector has a role to play in community college programs.

“If they’re talking about eliminating programs that are actually training people in jobs that the economy requires, maybe they should be going out to the private sector to see if there’s a possible additional investment that can happen,” he said. “Anybody who sent a letter in saying they wanted to see the program carried forward should be asked how much they want to invest.”

Michel Thériault, assistant deputy minister for the NBCC network in the Department of Post-Secondary Education, Training and Labour, says one of the biggest challenges they face in the community college system is being flexible enough to meet the ever-changing needs of their clientele.

“The demographics are such that we need to be more flexible in the way we reach people,” he says. “There are less people coming right out of high school and going to post-secondary education and there are a lot of people in the labour market not working at their full potential. The future is certainly around building more flexibility, offering opportunities to take programs on a part-time basis, offering distance education so they can follow the full program from their home or their community. That is certainly one area we want to do more in.”

Thériault says they are also working on the way programs are delivered.

“They were arranged more like school-type programs where you would come in the morning and do classes with the same group all day, but we are moving more to a course-based approach, more like a university,” he says, a move that will also provide more flexibility for students.

A discussion paper released by the Commission on Post-Secondary Education suggests demographics are poised to hurt New Brunswick post-secondary institutions in another way.

There are simply less high school students out there.

“Enrolments, especially in universities, are already declining and we can expect a further erosion of about 20 per cent over the next decade or so in the anglophone sector and slightly more in the francophone sector,” the paper says.

Thériault says enrolment across the province in community colleges has stayed steady at around 6,400 students for the past four or five years.

But New Brunswick’s college participation rates are far below the national average. The commission plans to look at why that is and how it can be remedied.

Thériault says they aim to meet the needs of the New Brunswick labour market with the college network, which means adding new programs as necessary, removing those that are no longer relevant, and finding ways to make sure program delivery is flexible enough to attract as many students as needed.

“I think the college has a good reputation in that, being able to adapt quickly and constantly to the labour market challenges,” he says. “The number of seats are usually lined up with our knowledge of the labour market. We try not to train significantly more people than the labour market can attract.”

Thériault says they review each of their programs every year, taking into consideration a number of factors.

“Do they have enough applications? Are the students successful in completing the programs? Are they being hired? Are they satisfied with the training they have? Are they finding jobs in New Brunswick? All these things are considered,” he says.

“A one-year blip doesn’t mean the program will stop, but if we see a trend, then eventually we have to make a decision.”

It appears their efforts to produce the right graduates for the labour market are working so far. Their most recent graduate survey, released in December, found 90 per cent of 2005 graduates were working a year after graduation, 83 per cent in their field.

“The other interesting part is close to 90 per cent (of those working) were working in New Brunswick, so we are really training for the New Brunswick labour market,” Thériault says.

The community college network currently offers about 120 different programs. Course offerings have evolved over time. Thériault says courses like hairdressing and call centre training have been taken over by others, while aviation programs in Moncton, for example, were cut back because graduates were finding little opportunity for employment in the province.

Lack of interest has also affected programs. Thériault says over the last few years they’ve had less applications for programs in information technology.

“We’ve had to adjust the number of seats in those programs because there was not enough enrolment,” he says.

On the other hand, the college network has seen increases in programs in the construction trades, health-related fields, and engineering technology and has moved into new fields like aquaculture.