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Home economists defend university program

University of Manitoba | Future of human ecology department is uncertain as university undergoes review

Manitoba home economists are campaigning to save their school at the University of Manitoba and earn recognition for their profession with the public.


At a meeting called to rally against possible university plans to break up the human ecology faculty, many home economists challenged the notion that home economics is a profession of the past.


“It is not a stagnant education. Nor is it a stagnant profession,” said Debora Durnin-Richards, president of the Manitoba Association of Home Economists.


“The university has no right to dismantle the program of human ecology, the study of that education. They have no right to disappear its identity by at least giving it a professional college designation.”


Manitoba home economists are concerned that the university administration is considering placing parts of the school in other faculties and proposed super-faculties.


Participants denounced suggestions that home economics’ traditional holistic education is outdated and that students would be better served by specializing. 


“More than ever we need students to be educated in nutrition, child development and parenting, and for that we need highly skilled and qualified teaching, and the faculty have provided that for about 100 years,” said Arlene Skull, the principal of an inner-city Winnipeg high school and a professional home economist.


“It has astounded me that the crisis in youth health and physical fitness and the increased use of food banks has been addressed by (private sector programs supported by money from companies, but) I am deeply concerned that there appears to be little understanding of what we need for the life preparation courses in the post-secondary institutions.”


Home economics was one of the earliest areas of study at the U of M. 


For decades, its graduates taught rural people how to safely prepare and store food, provide a healthy diet to families on a budget, manage challenging family dynamics and make, maintain and mend clothing.


In recent decades, the faculty’s programs have specialized.


The university administration is currently reviewing all of its faculties, programs and departments to find more affordable and rational options.


Some human ecology staff support relocating departments and programs to where they might fit better, either in health sciences or agriculture faculties, the meeting heard. 


Human ecology dean Gustaaf Sevenhuysen explained the reform process and why the university thinks the faculty’s programs don’t need to be offered by a standalone faculty.


“However the departments and facilities are structured doesn’t necessarily determine what is actually taught (thinks the administration),” he said.


“In other words, the structure isn’t a prerequisite of a program.”


Some home economists cited current obesity and diabetes epidemics and said they highlight the need for home economists to teach a broad array of skills to students. 


Skull said her school’s students this year include 29 percent from refugee families from Africa and the Middle East, 38 percent aboriginal and 52 percent living below the poverty level. 


They need basic education in many areas and home economists are ideal to offer it, she said.


Durnin-Richards said home economics deserves to be taken seriously and perhaps needs to find a friendlier home.


“If we don’t fit the University of Manitoba anymore after 100 and some years, perhaps it’s time to move on,” she said.


A social media campaign to highlight the importance of home economists can be found at #savehomeec on Twitter.

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