Thompson Rivers University is suspending enrolment for its visual arts school later this year to review the viability of the program, which has sky-high costs and an astronomical dropout rate.
That's what the university's senate heard at a meeting on Monday, where Gillian Balfour, TRU's provost and vice-president academic, said incoming visual-arts students arriving on campus in September have been warned about potential restructuring or closure of the program.
“Those incoming students have been advised about the implication of three years down the road, what might be happening to the program," she said.
"So there is, in total, a three year sort of teach-out that is possible."
Balfour said it was undecided if the program would undergo a teach-out or revision. Regardless, suspension of enrolment is required for both options.
“So either way, in order to respond to our internal process or our board-driven process, the program must suspend enrolment of students to allow for either a teach-out if that's so decided by the board, or to allow for a Category 3 program revision,” she said.
A Category 3 revision is a substantive restructuring of a program that would require undergoing a quality-assurance process with the ministry.
Balfour said the chair of the senate may provide information or advice to TRU’s board of governors, but closure of a program is entirely up to the board.
The basis for the program’s review is three-pronged. Faculty of arts Dean Richard McCutcheon said student attrition, financial concerns and workload equity are all contributing factors.
McCutcheon said the program received an average of 144 enrolments over nine years, but as students progress through the program the number drops considerably.
“By the time we get to the graduates, which averaged nine across this entire nine years, we see a 94 per cent decline in the number of students who get through the program,” he said.
The cost to the university per visual arts student was also much higher than the average across the faculty of arts. McCutcheon said the overall program cost over a five-year average was $6,774 a year to educate a full-time equivalent student in TRU's faculty of arts.
By comparison, it costs $19,505 per visual arts student over the same period of time.
Additionally, visual arts human-resources costs represent more than 10 per cent of the total costs in the faculty of arts despite making up only 4.2 per cent of the enrolment in the faculty, according to McCutcheon.
Enrolment in the visual arts program was also lower than other faculty of arts programs, creating workload inequity among faculty, he said.
“I cannot tell you how many times faculty members have come to me and said, 'Why is this faculty member teaching so much less than me?'” McCutcheon said.
“They're mostly in the social sciences and humanities and, frankly, it is impossible for me to explain the visual arts numbers because the number is that low.”
Comparing estimated faculty salaries over the 2023-24 academic year to full-time equivalent student enrolment, McCutcheon said it will cost $3,200 to $3,776 per student in the social sciences, $7,293 to $7,849 in humanities, and $9,730 up to $44,094 per full-time equivalent in visual arts.
“You can see that the numbers in visual arts are significantly higher and, in fact, to a very significant degree,” McCutcheon said.
“And so this becomes a really important calculation that we will have to take into consideration as we move this forward.”
McCutcheon said not all visual arts courses will be axed.
"A great many of the courses in what we are calling visual arts will continue to be offered at this university. We are thinking about how to package those and what to do with those," he said.
"But it is not true that all visual arts are being axed — only some particular parts which happened to be very expensive."
TRU announced in April that it would phase out its visual arts program over three years. Days later, the university backtracked and said it would instead review the viability of the program.
Balfour said the TRU senate will receive stakeholder submissions in September to see who will be impacted by the potential closure of the program.