Red River College students left waiting for answers about program's future

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A Red River College student says he was "shocked and stunned" to learn through media reports that the program he's been taking at the school for the last two years is being cancelled.

Cam Bush, who is set to graduate from the college's greenspace horticulture program this year, says no one from the college gave him or his fellow students any warning that the class was about to be axed.

"I was left wondering if the two years that I've invested in the program was all for naught," he told CBC News.

"Regardless I will take away a terrific education from the program but it would have been horrifically disappointing to come away with nothing in the end." 

In a letter Bush sent to college president Paul Vogt and Manitoba's education minister Ian Wishart, Bush said his local coffee shop provided more warning when changing its frequent buyer program than he and his fellow students received from the school about the program's future.

"I'd have hoped for at least half as much consideration from an institution I've dedicated two years of my life and many thousands of dollars to," he wrote.

"I am left to believe that RRC either doesn't care about the welfare of its students, or that this level of administrative unprofessional is the institutional norm."

The college has cut programs, laid off staff and reduced enrolment to cope with rising operating costs and a reduced operating grant from the province.

Bush has since learned, based on a classmate's interaction on Twitter, that students currently enrolled will still be able to graduate in the program. He has also received a formal apology from the college, which he has accepted.

News leaked

Red River spokesperson Conor Lloyd said the college's plans to inform students were pre-empted when news leaked to the media last week.

A college official had wanted to meet greenhouse horticulture students in-person to share the news, after they returned from their co-op placements, said Lloyd.

"We've since reached out to the students and apologized for the way they were notified about this change and have offered to meet with them to discuss further," Lloyd wrote in an email.

Their program remains on the chopping block, however.

Red River decided to cut two programs, lay off three instructors, reduce hours for several part-time positions and hike tuition by $250 for every program as a result of the province slashing the college's operating budget by $953,000, according to the Manitoba Government and Employees Union.

To cope with the funding shortfall, Red River is reducing enrolment numbers in numerous programs — nursing, health care aide, business administration and pre-employment trades programs.

But the institution is also adding or "significantly revising" seven programs, including courses on social enterprise and Indigenous languages, the college said.

Bush believes it's short-sighted to cancel his program.

"First of all this industry is growing and there's going to be an increased demand for people who are educated in the best practices of the field," he said.

"But I also think it's short-sighted because we're increasingly focused on issues related to climate change. And in our industry things like Indigenous plantings, which are important for things like reconciliation but also for environmental sustainability."

A blow to industry

Hillary Proctor is a graduate of the program who now owns and operates her own landscaping company in Winnipeg.

She says losing the program will be a blow to an industry that is right in the middle of a boom.

"In my career I've managed projects, even residential projects, that will be half a million dollars where you're hiring subcontractors like gas fitters and plumbers and it's become almost like a general contracting thing," she said.

"And then there are huge commercial projects where you are taking on large things that involve a lot of drainage and things that require a little bit more than just a wheelbarrow and a truck.

"It's hard to find people to do this kind of work who have a passion for it or an education at all."

Bush is interested in working in landscape restoration and naturalization once he graduates and, like many students in the program, currently works as a gardener with the City of Winnipeg.

He said graduates are supporting two growing industries in horticulture and landscaping and worries the program's cancellation will cause a vacuum of people who can speak to the practices or naturalization and preservation of Indigenous landscapes.

"There is increasing focus on these things as we deal with climate change and that's an education that you get in this program," he said.

"I just worry that there won't be another generation of that coming."