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Vancouver Island University ends partnership with ElderCollege after 30 years

Vancouver Island University says this fall will be the last semester for its partnership with ElderCollege, a continuing education program for those 50-plus. The group says it hopes to soldier on without the university.
Vancouver Island University’s Nanaimo campus. VANCOUVER ISLAND UNIVERSITY

Vancouver Island University says this fall will be the last semester for its partnership with ElderCollege, a continuing education program for those age 50-plus.

VIU ElderCollege, which operates in Parksville, Nanaimo and the Cowichan area, has seen thousands of learners go through its programs in the past three decades.

Among the 84 offerings this semester are courses in emergency preparedness, Coast Salish oral history and advance care planning, along with eclectic options such as mandala making, gherkin pickleball and an introductory course in medical cannabis.

The university cited financial difficulties in ending its partnership with the longest continuing ElderCollege organization on Vancouver Island.

“The successful partnership between Vancouver Island University and the ElderCollege board of directors has been a source of pride for both parties over the past 30 years,” the university said in a statement.

“However, considering the university’s current financial position, we are required to examine all aspects of our operations for efficiency, including lifelong learning offerings and continuing education programs.”

VIU spokesperson Jenn McGarrigle said there was a “significant gap” between revenue from enrolments and the costs of infrastructure and administrative support for ElderCollege.

That VIU support included accounting services and classroom space for the program, which operates with a volunteer board of directors. Those services will end Dec. 31.

VIU said the 647 students currently enrolled in VIU ElderCollege will be able to finish their courses this fall.

McGarrigle said the university will examine new models for continuing education “to deliver on our mandate from the provincial government while continuing to meet the needs of our learners of all ages.”

Ross Peterson, ElderCollege board chair, said the 3,000-member organization isn’t calling it quits.

“We will find a way to rise from the ashes and continue to provide ElderCollege courses. We’re not sure exactly how we’re going to do it, but we’re extremely optimistic,” he said in an interview. “The membership does not want ElderCollege to fade into the sunset.”

There won’t be any classes in January, but work is being done to ensure ElderCollege can provide the same level of service without VIU support in 2024, Peterson said.

“We’ve been speaking with other organizations who have successfully operated without the kind of support that we’ve had from VIU, so we’re encouraged by that.”

Since the board received the official announcement from VIU last week, ElderCollege has been inundated with letters of support and offers of help, he said.

The program has kept many people vibrant and engaged members of the community, Peterson said.

“It’s meant a great deal to their mental health and their emotional health,” he said. “We don’t like the idea of decisions like this being made solely on the basis of financial challenges. We think that the broader perspective has to be brought into decisions like this, and that’s to factor in the overall social health of the community.”

Inspired by a program at the then-Capilano College in North Vancouver, VIU’s ElderCollege program began in 1993 out of what is now Vancouver Island University’s Parksville campus, with 75 students enrolling in the seven courses offered at the time. The membership fee was $50 and course fees were initially set at $25.

According to a history of ElderCollege by Carol Wells, a long-time volunteer and instructor, the program was initially meant to be relatively independent and would only require a classroom and limited support from its parent institution.

There would be no teachers and no grades — members would plan and operate their own learning programs.

Two other ElderCollege programs remain on Vancouver Island. Duncan’s ElderCollege — renamed LifeLong Learners this year — is operated by the Cowichan Valley Regional District.

North Island College also runs ElderCollege programs out of its campuses in Campbell River, Comox Valley and Port Alberni.

Victoria’s Elder Academy, operated by the University of Victoria Retirees Association, stopped operations in 2022.

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