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Wealth of opportunities for higher learning

Whistler open for business with education providers



Even with today's economic woes, Whistler is sitting on a "little gold mine" of opportunities connected to higher education.

So says the consultant, hired for $46,000, to produce a report on the post-secondary education opportunities in the resort. That report ultimately recommends that Whistler consider establishing an Institute for Experiential Learning, bringing students to Whistler to learn on the ground from its top chefs, top hoteliers and from one of the biggest and most successful ski resort operators in North America.

That's a concept that has the greatest return with the lowest risk, said Rob Skinkle, president and CEO of Academica Group, who presented his findings to council this week. Essentially, Whistler would create organized student cohorts drawn from across a number of different schools who would participate in on-the-ground job experience.

"I believe you can get the most here in Whistler because you have an international reputation," said Skinkle.

He explained that one of the great weaknesses in post secondary education is the chance to do practicums.

"Which means there's an opportunity for your folks," said Skinkle.

This is, however, a time of great growth in post-secondary opportunities, which means it's a somewhat volatile market and, like others, subject to risk.

"Not all satellite campuses are working in the country," he said.

To mitigate the risks of growing too fast and not being able to fill spots, Skinkle recommended staying focused on the Whistler brand of hospitality and tourism and partnering with existing providers.

One of those partners was right on hand Tuesday night to express its great interest in working with Whistler - Capilano University.

"The resources are in Whistler are absolutely spectacular for a learning environment," said Dr. Chris Bottrill of Capilano University which is interested in a concept they call The Whistler Centre.

"We're being inspired by the Aspen model, by the Banff model," he explained.

Cap U, which has a long history in Whistler, proposes using existing space in the first phase of its learning centre with no new buildings or major capital expenditures.

All recognize the potential spin-off effects in the community.

Councillor Ralph Forsyth asked Skinkle how much money a typical student would spend in the community. The consultant was reluctant to give a number because there are so many variables but typically it costs students $15,000 a year to support themselves at school, not including tuition and books.

"Do you know the percentage that is spent on beers?" joked Forsyth.

Mayor Ken Melamed clarified that this is not about the municipality getting into the university business.

"It's really putting it out there to the public sector and the private sector that we're open to these kinds of opportunities," he said.

What that means, however, for the proponents of Whistler U, hoping to develop a 1,5000 student university campus on the lands north of Function Junction, is not clear.

Dr. Doug Player said they are waiting to for a change of guard at the council table in November's election and will be ready to submit their proposal right away after the election.

"I think it (the report) supports everything we've been saying for five years," said Player.

He maintains that without a stand-alone campus Whistler will not be able to attract the kind of clientele it needs.

And, because it's not a non-profit, Player said there's no risk to the community; the university assumes the risk involved in filling its classrooms.

In the meantime council approved Capilano's concept and work will now move forward to develop a strategy for The Whistler Centre, which will be considered by the municipality next spring.