Keyano applies to become a polytechnic as enrolment booms

Student enrolment will soon be greater than what Keyano College reported during the oilsands boom days.

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Keyano College will soon have its highest enrollment yet. The swelling campus is one reason the college is asking the Alberta government to make them a polytechnic, which offers more programs than a college.

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Jay Notay, CEO and president of Keyano College, said in a year-end interview that the college will have nearly 3,500 students by the summer. The most students that have ever studied at once at Keyano has been 2,900 students. There were 2,700 students enrolled by the end of 2023.

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Much of the growth has been with international students, although Notay says the college is prioritizing Canadian and Indigenous students. There were 1,100 international students enrolled at Keyano at the end of 2023, and Notay says they should not take up more than half of available spots.

“As a college, we are trying to address the problem of young people leaving,” he said. “It’s always important to demonstrate that students don’t need to leave the region. There are opportunities to stay here and live and work here.”

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The main focus is winning over students in the Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo region. Notay and the leaders of Fort McMurray’s Catholic and public schools say roughly half of students leave the region when they graduate high school.

That number is expected to climb as teenagers who witnessed the 2016 Horse River wildfire, economic uncertainty in the oilsands, the COVID-19 pandemic and the April 2020 flood graduate.

Polytechnic will help keep students local: Notay

Keyano needs an attractive list of in-demand programs to keep students in Fort McMurray, said Notay.

A polytechnic offers many of the same programs as a college, but has more autonomy than a college and does not need to partner with universities to offer applied degrees. Notay says a polytechnic can also work closer with industry groups.

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The college will have 18 new programs by fall 2024, ranging from a Masters in Education with the University of Alberta to programs in cybersecurity and artificial intelligence. There are no plans to cut any programs in the near future, Notay adds.

Keyano hopes to run its own bachelor of social work and bachelor of science in environmental science, replacing the current programs run in partnerships with other universities, if it becomes a polytechnic.

keyano
The Syncrude Technology Centre building on the Keyano College Clearwater campus in Fort McMurray Alta. on Sunday, April 19, 2020. Laura Beamish/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network SunMedia

Notay says health care programs are likely part of Keyano’s next expansion, and local students have told the college it is a field that interests them.

“We lose students largely to institutions in Edmonton and Calgary because as a college, we cannot provide the programming this area needs in an autonomous or efficient manner,” said Notay.

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This growth comes with challenges. For now, international students in Fort McMurray have not been hit with an affordable housing crisis seen in other Canadian cities.

The federal government has threatened to cap visas in provinces that don’t help house students. Space is going to become an issue if Keyano does not begin planning for that growth now.

“As we plan our growth, it will be an area of concern probably in about two years time but Keyano is already having these conversations with the community and organizations, including Wood Buffalo Housing and the municipality,” said Notay.

“It’s not something that we are concerned with, but we are aware that it could be an issue if we don’t address it appropriately.”

Notay is happy with Keyano’s performance in 2023, especially after the Alberta government invested $9.2 million into maintenance and program expansions at Keyano.

The college has more funding requests with the province, although he hopes to make Keyano less reliant on government grants.

“More changes are coming. In the end it’s about more opportunities and less about sunsetting programs,” he said.

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