Algonquin’s documentary program suspended
Documentary production grad students stand with program co-ordinator Peter Biesterfeld. This is the last class graduating from the program after it was suspended in a board of governors meeting April 9
BY NOURAN ABDELLATIF
Algonquin’s documentary production graduate certificate program was suspended in a board of governors meeting April 9 as it completes its fourth year.
Co-ordinator Peter Biesterfeld pitched the program to the college after reading a study from Culture Human Resources Council about training gaps. One of the main things the study identified was that students need a hands-on program which is the approach the program took for its program. Though the program was struggling, Biesterfeld said they were constantly tweaking and enhancing it as they went along.
“It was a surprise and a shock that these improvements weren’t being acknowledged,” said Biesterfeld. “To go straight to suspension that was a bit of a shock because you want to know whether these improvements are doing what they’re supposed to do in terms of retention and number of applications.”
The program has been unable to reach the college’s standards. Any Algonquin program is required to have a 70 per cent retention rate, fill most of, if not all, the seats provided, have good Key Performance Indicator (KPI) scores and make a financial contribution worth 25 per cent of its profits to bear its own share of operating the college.
“We thought it could survive as a niche program, one that would appeal to people with specific interests,” said Russell Mills, dean of the Faculty of Arts, Media and Design. “We would have needed to be able to find students every year who wanted to learn about documentary production and once they got here they stayed here and thought well of the program.”
Students are unhappy about the suspension saying the program has been of benefit to them.
“I know I benefited greatly from taking this program and I think many others would have enjoyed taking this program because it’s not just documentary, there’s many other streams related,” said alumnus Garmamie Sideau. “But a lot of the skills are transferable to various other sectors. I’m a web consultant and of course online video is a mode of communication. I can provide this service because of the skills that I got from the college.”
Biesterfeld said there was a lack of interest on the college’s behalf in the program though Mills said the college had its eye on the program because of the numbers.
The college wasn’t the only party keeping a close watch on the program. The Documentary Organization of Canada (DOC) sent a letter to the Media Chair, Robyn Heaton, expressing their concern for the program. Jacques Ménard, a filmmaker and a member of DOC’s Ottawa-Gatineau chapter who also signed the letter, said the organization simply advocates for anything documentary-related and since they had been involved with the program from the start they were naturally concerned. When DOC was presented with the numbers, it only increased their worries.
“In the letter we wrote, we congratulated Algonquin on having a documentary program they had some small changes to make things better and the initial response was for DOC to come in and sit on the advisory board,” said Ménard.
A member of the local DOC chapter and teacher in the program, Karl Nerenberg said it was unfortunate that DOC used the organization’s letterhead to express personal grievances with the program.
“I think it’s dangerous and somewhat ethically dubious to use the name of an organization of which you’re on the executive just because you have the legal right to do so,” said Nerenberg.
He also said the program had been doing well and the students were interested in their work.
“I found it always rewarding to go into the classroom and to deal with them and to see some of their work and they progress they made and the development in their understanding of how to do a documentary,” said Nerenberg.
Mills said the college is now working on a broader pitch for documentary production and is considering two different options: an optional third year for students in the television program which already includes some documentary instruction or as bridging courses for film graduates. Nothing has been confirmed yet but the college is consulting with an advisory board.