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Home economists fear demise of university program

At a time when nutrition and consumer literacy are growing concerns, the home economics department is losing its identity

The Manitoba Association of Home Economists wants 
equal consideration given to human ecology in 
academic restructuring process

Gordon Bell High School has hundreds of single-parent students, kids from low-income households, Aboriginal youth and kids from immigrant families unfamiliar with the foods, kitchens and grocery stores of their new country.

And they keep three full-time home economics teachers very busy teaching courses in foods and nutrition, parenting, and consumer literacy, says the downtown Winnipeg school’s principal.

But Arlene Skull, a professional home economist herself, also wonders where schools like hers will find qualified teachers to teach home economics in the not-so-distant future.

Skull told a forum of home economists over the weekend that she worries about where and how future home economics teachers will be trained if the University of Manitoba goes ahead with a proposal to abolish the faculty of human ecology.

“When I look at how good the program is in my school and the number of children whose lives we’re affecting in a positive way, and then I look at the restructuring it really scares me,” she said.

“We need competent individuals in our schools to teach these life courses.”

Skull was part of a panel at a forum held on the eve of the Manitoba Association of Home Economists (MAHE) annual general meeting to talk over their frustrations with the University of Manitoba’s proposed academic restructuring initiative.

The university is trying to cut costs and gain efficiencies by merging many of its free-standing faculties, including human ecology, plus other schools and departments into much larger so-called ‘super faculties.’

They don’t take issue with the university trying to curb costs and modernize, but don’t approve of the plan to strip human ecology of its name and identity, said home economist Debora Durnin-Richards who is also Manitoba Association of Home Economists (MAHE) president.

Other current faculties like dentistry and nursing will retain the status of ‘professional colleges’ and remain go-to sites for employers hiring graduates. Human ecology isn’t being afforded the same consideration.

Instead, its three programs — family social sciences, textile sciences and human nutritional sciences — are slated to be divided up among these colleges.

“There will be no professional program of study,” said Durnin-Richards. “It will have no identity. Dismantled and put into different parts of the university will not work. It will not work for people to become home economics teachers, and it will not work for the practice of home economics in the broader society.”

Others speaking at the forum said it’s ironic that, just as we’re seeing the need for life skills and competencies as a solution to societal problems, a university with the last home economics program in the country is preparing to abolish it.

Demand for those who can help others gain skills and knowledge in areas such as food and nutrition and financial literacy is rising all the time, said Gail Watson, a trustee with Pembina Trails School Division and home economist.

“That’s what disappoints me the most, ” she said. “The university is so out of touch with the rest of society.”

The faculty of human ecology at the University of Manitoba is the last stand-alone faculty in Canada, with universities elsewhere also shifting their academic structures to pocket human ecology studies within other faculties of education, agriculture or medicine.

The university first rolled out its academic structure initiative in January 2012.

No final decisions have been made by the human ecology faculty council, nor the university’s senate or board of governors.

Durnin-Richards said home economists will continue to speak out about their concerns. What they’re asking for is to retain an integrated program of study, she said.

“We need to have an integrated program,” she said. “We need to maintain our identity and we need to have a unique program of study that is human ecology.”

About the author

Reporter

Lorraine Stevenson is a reporter and photographer for the Manitoba Co-operator with 25 years experience writing news and features. She was previously a reporter with the Farmers Independent Weekly and has also written for community newspapers in Winnipeg and Manitoba's Interlake.

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