Let’s Make Nelson a University Town Again

Shortly after arriving in Nelson in 2012, I submitted an essay to the Nelson Star calling for a renewed effort to bring a university back to Nelson. I thought it would be easy to get local leaders interested, but it turned out to be harder than I thought. There didn’t appear to be any interest from local government in pursuing this as a goal.

Still, the group that originally lobbied for Nelson to become a university town is currently making an effort to reform their society and try again. Hopefully, this time around we can build a grassroots campaign that will be able to make hay on the new effort to create more university spaces to meet future demand.

It might be a wee bit dated, but I think the reasoning for why we might succeed still stands. Check out my original essay below:

This past spring, LA Times travel writer Christopher Reynolds described Nelson as “a college town that has misplaced its university”. Unbeknowst to Reynolds, Nelson once was a university town. But Nelson’s university wasn’t so much misplaced as it was taken away after the Bennett government closed David Thompson University in 1984.

Now, in 2012, conditions might be ripe to push for Nelson to once again become a university town.

In a recent submission to the Select Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services of the Legislative Assembly of BC, the Research Universities’ Council of British Columbia called for the creation of up to 11,000 new spaces for post-secondary students by 2020. This call to action cites projections for BC’s labour market, which estimate that approximately one million job openings will become available in the province over the next decade, and that the demand for workers will outstrip supply by almost 62,000 people. Of that number, at least 15,000 will require a university degree, and another 17,000 will require a two-year college diploma or trade certificate.

The takeaway from this is clear. If BC wants to stay competitive we have to step up our game with regard to education. According to the Research Universities’ Council, we have to reverse the current $50 million in cuts to BC’s post-secondary institutions, and increase funding by approximately $130 million to create and support those 11,000 new spaces.

The economic case for regional support of a university in Nelson is a no-brainer. Selkirk College is already one of the region’s biggest employers, so we already know that there are significant economic benefits from supporting such a venture. Aside from the creation of new jobs that would bring qualified faculty and staff to town, there is an opportunity to create hundreds of positions for faculty, administrative, and support staff as the institution grows, not to mention the ripple effect of thousands of students coming to town on the hunt for food, housing, and entertainment. And the economic benefits extend beyond the immediate. There is significant research to support the fact that local economies benefit from the spill-over of these so-called “knowledge factories”, which fuel growth of local business and industry fed by the research and development conducted at these institutions.

So why is Nelson a good candidate for a university? Well, aside from the fact that Nelson is geographically well positioned to serve the southeast interior of the province with a university, it’s arguably a town that any university student would love to call home. Recognized internationally as a funky, youthful, easy-to-get-around place with loads of entertainment options, including an outstanding music scene and easy access to world-class outdoor recreation, Nelson’s reputation is a huge draw for students throughout BC, across Canada, and around the world.

It might seem far-fetched to think that any grassroots campaign to lobby for the creation of a new university could be successful, but that’s exactly how Prince George’s University of Northern BC came into being. Founded in 1987, a Prince George-based organization called the Interior University Society, worked at a local level to foster the political momentum to support the plan. Every town, village, city, chamber of commerce, school board, and community group in the area wrote letters of support. Local politicians at the federal and provincial levels got involved, and 16,000 citizens not only signed a petition, they paid $5 for the privilege to do so, which helped fund a study that demonstrated the feasibility of creating a university in the north. By 1990, legislation was passed that created UNBC, and within four years the Prince George campus was ceremonially opened by Queen Elizabeth, and 1,500 students enrolled that September. The student population has since grown to over 4,000.

Back to the present. Just because the Research Universities’ Council of BC has called for more funding doesn’t mean the government will act, and it certainly doesn’t mean that, if or when they do act, they will start building new institutions.

But if our government does consider investing in growing post-secondary education in our province, they will look for ways to maximize return on investment (or at least they should), so it makes sense to pair any plan to develop the province’s post-secondary system alongside regional economic development initiatives, where that money can not only help BC meet its need for a highly skilled workforce, but also help us diversify our local economies.

So how do we start a movement to create an institution that has the power to alter the course of the region’s evolution over the next century? Well, first, we have to decide whether or not this is something that Nelson and the surrounding region wants to get behind. After that, there is no roadmap for something like this, but in the case of UNBC, it took a small but committed group of regional and business leaders to recognize the value of the endeavour and set about rallying the citizenry to make it happen. As they say, big things have small beginnings.

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