By Shaamini Yogaretnam, Edmonton JournalKeyano College, Fort McMurray’s only post-secondary institution, laid off 20 staff in advance of a budget restructuring on Friday.The move leaves students and alumni questioning the school’s commitment to the arts in a city widely known for its industrial and trade opportunities.Early reports circulated on social media and on blog posts claimed that school officials predominantly laid off visual and performing arts employees Friday morning with only a few minutes’ notice.“That’s categorically untrue,” said Ann Everatt, vice-president academic. “We informed each and every individual verbally and in writing. Nobody was given 15 minutes.”Seven of the laid-off staff members were offered alternate positions at the college, she said.Some of the laid-off staff were visual and performing arts faculty, the college confirmed, others were in administrative and support positions. The college has not released the names of those affected by the layoffs or the departments involved.Keyano says the increasingly low enrolment in several programs prompted a restructuring of funds and rethinking of the curriculum, which it articulated in an open letter posted on its website and Facebook page to dispute claims made on the Internet by students and arts advocates.The low enrolment and low retention rate in year two of two-year programs indicated to Keyano College president Kevin Nagel that the programming needed to change.“We need to be focusing on developing programs that meet the needs of our region, including those in the arts,” Nagel said.Visual artist and former student Jacquie McFarlane Brault thinks the letter only half-addresses the reality of low enrolment at Keyano.“It looks like the college is dropping to 50-per cent enrolment, but really it’s a matter of the space that they have, not that people aren’t interested in the courses,” Brault said.The classrooms barely accommodate the 17 full-time first-year students and are at max capacity when continuing education or recreational students register for the same classes, she added.Blogger and student reactions suggest that the elimination of arts programming is another way to promote the trades in Fort McMurray, at the expense of all other pursuits.Brault took two years off after high school to work to save money for a post-secondary education. Leaving the community and taking on more debt wasn’t an option for her, but neither was working a trade.“Not everyone wants be a trade worker or a labourer, nor should they be,” she said.Brault is concerned that Keyano may turn into a conservatory-style institution with no accreditation for courses and programs, effectively removing students’ ability to get a post-secondary education in the arts in the region and further promoting the trades.“I don’t want to take Painting 101, I want to take an academic class that will challenge me,” Brault said.The arts’ program restructuring will occur over the next year and will shift to a certificate program instead of the diploma currently offered, Everatt confirmed.Brault and a group of students fighting to save the program think this is just another step in the college’s devaluation of arts programs. Last year, several staff members from the music program were also laid off in advance of a similar restructuring.“There are more institutions here than just Keyano College that need to contribute to the ongoing development of culture,” Nagel said.Michelle Boyd, a local blogger and fibre artist who used to work at Keyano thinks the college’s decision is part of a larger trend of the province prioritizing trades and industrial programs to accommodate the oil industry.“If we have to send our kids away to Edmonton or points beyond to pursue an education, which we do, very few of them return to work here,” Boyd said. “That’s how small towns drain and die.”Keyano College said it’s committed to ensuring that all students currently enrolled in arts diploma programs can complete their requirements.
By Shaamini Yogaretnam, Edmonton Journal
[email protected]This article was published in the Edmonton Journal on May 7, 2012. To read the full article, visit the Edmonton Journal website.