Yukon University is looking to join an organization that represents just about all universities in Canada, in hopes of gaining some status and acceptance in the academic world, and in many ways, a badge of legitimacy.
The Whitehorse-based institution wants to join the ranks of Universities Canada, an association that bills itself as "the voice of Canadian universities." Yukon University is not part of the club — at least not yet — but it submitted an application to join this fall. Whether it will be accepted remains to be seen.
"I'm really interested in seeing what happens here," said Glen Jones, professor of higher education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto.
"Universities Canada has become the kind of national club. It's the club that you want to become a member of, partly so that you have recognition from your peers and partly because I think it also provides some broader international recognition."
Universities Canada describes itself as a member-based organization that provides a unified voice for universities to advocate on higher education issues at the federal level. The organization also offers scholarships on behalf of private companies and works to "foster collaboration" between universities, government and the private sector.
It is not a regulatory body. There is no national accreditation for post-secondary institutions in Canada — the responsibility falls to territorial and provincial governments.
The Yukon Government created legislation to allow Yukon College to become a university in 2020. For school officials, becoming a member of Universities Canada is one of the next steps in becoming a more mature institution.
Yukon University president Lesley Brown told CBC News last month that she wants to see YukonU join Universities Canada in order for students to have more access to funding. The national organization administers more than 120 scholarship programs.
'We want a seat at the table,' said Lesley Brown, president of Yukon University. (Rafsan Faruque Jugol/CBC)
Another reason, Brown said, is "because we want a seat at the table."
"We want to be part of the voice of Universities Canada when there are discussions about the role of universities and the role of education in helping to solve some of the most pressing issues in Canada," she said, adding that YukonU brings a unique northern voice.
An outlier among universities
If accepted, Jones said Yukon University would certainly be the smallest member. The school currently grants degrees in only two undergraduate programs, which also makes it an outlier when compared to all the other members of Universities Canada.
According to Jones, it's hard to compare YukonU to any other Canadian university. He points to the relatively small student population, the mix of offerings including undergraduate courses and diploma programs, the school's relationship with Indigenous communities, and the unique northern context as elements that set the institution apart from others.
Yukon University's convocation ceremony in 2022. (Sissi De Flaviis/CBC)
Yukon University reports the total number of credit students for this fall is 734. Of those, 469 students are considered full-time, taking at least three classes, while the rest are students taking either one or two courses. When looking at just undergraduate degree programs, the number of full-time students is closer to 130 people.
"We are a unique university, in the North," said Brown. "We are a different kind of university and one that offers programs from adult basic education, skills trade training, certificates, degrees, diplomas programs."
But whether that uniqueness still fits the Universities Canada mould is the question.
"Becoming a member of Universities Canada is about… maintaining the sort of standards necessary to be considered a university in sort of broader terms," said Jones.
Elaborate and lengthy process
In addition to the submitted application, Jones explained it is an elaborate and lengthy process for acceptance. Reviewers, who are often senior members of other universities, will also do an on-site visit in the territory.
Having read the YukonU's application, Jones applauds the steps the school has taken in the past couple of years, transforming its governance structure and policies so that it parallels other universities.
"There are some universities that have gone through a similar pathway in a sense of evolving from a community college or a vocational-education structure towards a university," he told CBC News. However, he notes most of those cases involve institutions that focus on undergraduate and graduate studies.
Glen Jones, a professor of higher education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, applauds the steps Yukon University has taken in the past couple of years, transforming its governance structure and policies so that it parallels other universities. (Submitted by Glen Jones)
"There's a general assumption that most of the activities of the entity will be at the university level. For obvious and very good reasons, Yukon University continues to offer a lot of diploma and certificate programs."
The two degrees YukonU currently grants include business administration and Indigenous governance. Students can take a number of other undergraduate programs but those degrees are granted by partnering universities. Jones isn't sure how the educational offerings like diplomas and certificates, combined with the limited breadth of undergraduate liberal arts, will be judged.
On the other hand, Jones points out the unique nature of YukonU, its connection to the territory and Indigenous communities has special value. The university has an associate vice-president of reconciliation and an advisory committee on First Nations initiatives that includes representatives from each of the Yukon First Nations.
A meeting of the Yukon University board of governors in 2023. (Cheryl Kawaja/CBC)
"It's a distinctive institution and I think that somehow needs to be taken into account by Universities Canada in assessing it," he said.
Even if Yukon University's application is not accepted this time, it can try again later. Schools can re-apply after three years.
In the meantime, Yukon University continues to evolve. The school's Universities Canada application describes plans to transition existing partnered degrees to YukonU degree programs. The university also hopes to develop new degree programs.
At a recent meeting of the Yukon University board of governors, Provost Shelagh Rowles said the institution is currently exploring the feasibility of creating a Bachelor of Science degree in nursing. She told the board a committee is studying the needs and gaps in the health-care system.
"A plan is emerging and right now we're working with government to say, how do we stage this in such a way that is workable and doable?" she said.
As for the application to Universities Canada, it's not clear when Yukon University might hear back.