Vancouver Island University

Enriching education: Embracing entrepreneurship

Against the beautifully diverse natural landscape and shorelines of Vancouver Island lies an institute for progressive learning, Vancouver Island University (VIU). The institution is one of British Columbia’s newest universities, although it has a history dating back more than 75 years. As an innovative learning centre for students, this multi-faceted centre of learning has grown from its initial trade school in Nanaimo, to a university college, to the university of today.

The university has a broad scope of programs and courses, as well as several master’s programs and operates four campuses with a main campus in Nanaimo. The Canadian Business Journal spoke with Toni O’Keeffe, Executive Director of Communications and Public Relations with VIU, about the university’s strengths and focus, its recent transitions and its philosophy.

Aquaculture acumen

VIU’s location on the coast of Vancouver Island presents a unique situation for the university, which has a reputation for excellence in programs related to its regional assets. There is a large focus on aquaculture training, in terms of shellfish development. The recent construction of the Deep Bay Field Station for shellfish research is a major advancement for the university and was a highly anticipated, heavily-funded endeavour. This state-of-the-art research centre is delving into the growing shellfish industry of British Columbia. O’Keeffe explains, “Researchers are looking at how they can support the shellfish industry in British Columbia, from new ways to harvest shellfish from the ocean, as well as ocean health issues.” The centre has garnered a significant amount of international attention and has seen multiple international visitors, as well as a visit from Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. This intuitive development only further strengthens VIU’s aquaculture program.

The shellfish industry in British Columbia is expected to experience tremendous growth in the next few years. Valued at about $30.9 million, it is already one of the province’s major industries and is forecasted to grow to an astonishing $100 million by 2011. The majority of the shellfish in the province comes from a particular area in the Strait of Georgia, which is precisely where the Deep Bay Field Station is located. Nestled amongst the action, the university proudly anticipates a very positive future for the centre. Says O’Keeffe, “The centre is going to play a major role in helping not only British Columbia and Canada but the world look at new ways we can develop and harvest from the ocean.”

Keeping in line with the focus on natural resources, VIU also owns a natural woodland growth area for forestry students. The 1,700 hectares of forestland allows student to engage in engineering, surveying, mapping, timber cruising and ecological assessments during all seasons. Just as with aquaculture students, forestry students are able to gain the irreplaceable hands-on field experience they need to succeed. “We put our students into living labs, so to speak,” describes O’Keeffe. President Ralph Nilson is a vocal advocate of the university’s focus on natural resources training for the region. “We pride ourselves on doing what’s relevant to the local economy,” said O’Keeffe. The provincial economy is indeed driven by the natural resource sector, but the changing economy has seen a decline in the mining industry. “We have to help these coastal communities re-adjust,” says O’Keeffe. From the look of the universities programs, it is on the right path to do just that.

Aboriginal engagement

Continuing with the university’s commitment to a regional protocol, VIU has a keen interest in aboriginal engagement. British Columbia has a large aboriginal population, with First Nations being the only segment of the population that is growing in the 18 to 24 age demographic. O’Keeffe acknowledges the opportunity this presents for the country when all other population groups are declining. The university maintains a large and active aboriginal student population. In fact, the university chancellor is Chief Shawn Atleo, a Hereditary Chief from the Ahousaht First Nation, who is the first aboriginal university chancellor in the province’s history. “His presence as our chancellor sends a message that aboriginal engagement is incredibly important, not only to the sustainability of Vancouver Island, but to Canada at large,” says O’Keeffe.

Environmental sustainability

Naturally, given its location and programs of focus, VIU maintains a commitment to environmental sustainability, as well as operational sustainability in regard to business practices and how it operates. The university recently won the 2010 Award for Institutional Innovation and Integration, an international award for planning. A testament to the synergistic and dynamic nature of the Nanaimo Campus, the award is a “great source of pride” for everyone at the institution. The university now employs an energy manager, a sustainability manager, and requires all new projects to be LEEDS certified; all steps proving its commitment to the cause.

Entrepreneurial spirit 

As with all universities, the funding challenge remains prevalent. In 1982, VIU was provided with 82 per cent of its funding. Today, it is down to 47 per cent. That, combined with the tuition freeze and cap in British Columbia, means the university must find innovative ways to generate revenue and discover more business opportunities. “We have to be more entrepreneurial,” says O’Keeffe. “It is a challenge, but we have been meeting that challenge.”

VIU is excited about its new involvements, in particular with the aquaculture industry. It is a smart, progressive approach to a continually growing problem encroaching Canadian post-secondary institutions. Entrepreneurial spirit is a crucial part of keeping afloat within a convoluted system, something VIU intrinsically comprehends. The future, no doubt, will be interesting to watch.