Is the Government pulling the plug on Athabasca University?

Athabasca University

Athabasca University’s main building outside of the Town of Athabasca

Is the Alberta Government pulling the plug on Athabasca University?

Government and institution officials say no, but sources say discussions are taking place that could drastically alter the services provided by Alberta’s online distance learning university, including a potential merger with the University of Alberta.

With a looming provincial budget and post-secondary institutions preparing themselves for potential funding cuts, sources say that ongoing high-level discussions in government could lead to a reorganization of the services offered by Athabasca University.

Deputy Premier Thomas Lukaszuk

Deputy Premier Thomas Lukaszuk

Reached over the telephone this week, newly appointed Enterprise and Advanced Education Minister Thomas Lukaszuk said that he is not aware of any formal discussions related to a potential merger between Athabasca University and the University of Alberta.

While the minister would not endorse a forced merger, he said “it would be positive if one school could utilize another’s infrastructure.”

Sources say the changes being discussed could result in attempts to eliminate the duplication of services and infrastructure in Alberta’s post-secondary institutions.

“I will be moving to encourage institutions to collaborate and find efficiencies,” Minister Lukaszuk said. He plans to hold joint meetings with the post-secondary institutions to find ways the institutions can cooperate and share resources.

Reached via email, Athabasca University Manager of Communications and Media Relations John O’Brien wrote that he was not aware of any discussions related to a merger. Mr. O’Brien noted that Athabasca University does collaborate, on a limited basis, with the University of Alberta. Athabasca University currently contracts Internal Audit Services from the University of Alberta.

The geographic distance between the institution and its student population could make Athabasca University an easy target for government savings. At 36% of undergraduate students, Albertans are not the largest geographic group served by the distance learning institution (Ontarians are, at 36.4%).

Unlike Alberta’s other post-secondary institutions (built with bricks and mortar), Athabasca University’s online existence could make it appear politically easier to reorganize and repurpose without large protests concentrated in a single community or campus.

Financial pains

With Athabasca University projected to run operating deficits over the next three budget cycles, incorporating components of the institution, or significantly increasing its collaboration, with other institutions could be a way for the province to decrease the cost of the institution. The university’s 2012-2013 approved operating budget was estimated to be more than $137 million.

The institution’s projected budgets predict decreases in investment income and fundraising revenue, and expected increases in operating costs. In 2012, it was revealed that Athabasca University had depleted its $30 million reserve fund in only five years.

Modern technical infrastructure is also essential for any post-secondary institution that wants to survive in a highly-competitive and brand-based global online education market.

According to Athabasca University’s 2012-2015 Comprehensive Institutional Plan, the institution needs to invest upwards of $90 million to upgrade its software programs and technical infrastructure. The institution has been requesting an $80 million investment from the provincial government to cover the cost of these upgrades. Given the current political climate around government spending, the Tories may have little inclination to fulfill this request.

No political champion?

Does Athabasca University have a champion at the cabinet table or in the Progressive Conservative Caucus who will advocate for increased funding for its operations and infrastructure upgrades? Does the university have a champion who will defend its continued existence?

After becoming embroiled in the embarrassing illegal donation scandal, I am told there are more than a few PC MLAs who remain unimpressed with the conduct of the institution’s senior administration.

In 2012, a CBC investigation revealed that Athabasca University was one of a handful of post-secondary institutions to break provincial elections laws. Between 2006 and 2008, Athabasca University spent more than $10,000 on fundraising events organized by the Athabasca-Redwater and Edmonton-Whitemud Progressive Conservative associations. It is illegal for publicly-funded institutions to make donations to political parties.

48 thoughts on “Is the Government pulling the plug on Athabasca University?”

  1. Well, this is a disturbing suggestion. I am currently enrolled as a part-time student in a Master’s programme at Athabasca; I’m on my third course in an eight-to-ten course programme (depending on how you count courses). If AU is shut down by the government, what happens to my (and other students’) investment in education, not just financial but intellectual and temporal (i.e. the time & effort invested)? None of Alberta’s other universities offer distance options in my field of study at the graduate level.

  2. I think it unlikely that they’d close the campus down, Jerry – when U of A took over Augustana, students were still able to continue their programs. Some were gradually phased out, but generally speaking, when a merger like this takes place, there are provisions to ensure that students can complete programs – usually within a specified amount of time (at Augustana, it was a seven year completion deadline).

    Speaking as a recent Athabasca grad (MA program), a merger might be a very good thing for the school, and for student services.

  3. This is disturbing to me too. I’m in course 4 of an 11 course Masters, and from my student experience, Athabasca is doing things right. Course work that’s extremely challenging and relevant, competent and helpful instructors, delivered in a time and place that works with my graduate-school administrator career, with faculty who lead the world in the field of distance education. I don’t see U of A doing this.

  4. Talk of mergers of post-secondary institutions is not new but one question remains unanswered .. what possible gains would there be for students and post-secondary education in Alberta for any of the 4 universities to merge into one big, faceless, ‘corporate’ institution? Considering that for a moment I’m left asking: Would fees go up? Would services to students go down? Would gov’t dollars be better managed? Hmmmm ….

  5. It would be interesting if they did statistics on the number of students from out of province that go to the U of A and the U of C. Who cares where the students come from. Indeed, at many Universities International students are charged twice as much tuition in a cash grab by these institutions.

  6. Interesting. Athabasca has been the best of the five institutions I’ve studied at (the rest brick and mortar) – great profs and great graduate courses and a finesse with online courses that’s respected across North America. I think it’s something for Alberta to be really proud of.

  7. My sense is that political, rather than practical calculations, would drive any move like this. AU is in financial disarray (due to both structural and leadership problems) and it has embarrassed the conservative party. Institutional decapitation (with minimal real integration with the U of A) cleans up the leadership problem (no one will miss these guys anyhow), may generate some small savings (although I doubt it), and makes the conservatives look like they are responsible fiscal managers with a vision for Campus Alberta (whatever that means).

    Practically, I doubt students would notice any change. The complexity of Athabasca’s systems means real integration with the U of A is years off so there would be few job losses in Jeff Johnson’s riding, at least in the short-term. This would also serve as a good lesson for other PSEs about what happens when you anger the government and fail to cope with budget pressures adequately.

    Shame it has come to a point where this is a possibility.

  8. I find it interesting how none of the information reported here can be validated by the writer. Articles like this raise more questions than they answer. Is the writer’s source credible? One thing I truly appreciate from my educational experience at Athabasca University is the emphasis that was put on critical thinking. Can’t really give a lot of weight to this article.

  9. Dave mentions that only 36 percent of our students at Athabasca University have Alberta addresses. What should be added, though, is that Alberta universities’ provincial grants are calculated using a formula for which grant money is provided ONLY for students with Alberta addresses. Our provincial grant pays for less than 30 percent of the costs of operating the university. Pre-Klein, that figure was 80 percent. We’ve had support from previous Ministers of Advanced Education for a grant that takes into account our total enrolment, but they’ve never had any luck with Cabinet.

    The total costs of operation plus capital per enrolment at Athabasca University have always been lower than at other universities. We have little in the way of buildings, grounds, etc. and so our costs for maintenance and security are negligible.

    As an AU prof, I’m available to my students pretty much 24/7 for the 10 months of the year that I’m neither on professional development or vacation leave, and even through much of that. U of A has been largely unsuccessful in figuring out how to factor in distance courses in their relatively rigid faculty union contract’s provisions re how much teaching faculty are expected to do. I think that any effort to graft AU’s service model onto the U of A model would result in the AU part of the equation ending up costing far more than it currently does while offering less.

    It would be a shame for Athabasca University to disappear because an incompetent government that will not face revenue issues squarely wants the APPEARANCE of saving money that merging institutions might provide. The reality however would be different than the appearance, especially if it is U of A swallowing up AU rather than the reverse. AU’s management is nothing to write home about, but by all accounts, the U of A’s bloated senior bureaucracy is out of touch with all reality, nothing more really than a large PR, soak-the-public machine.

  10. Doubt very much that U of A has any interest in being saddled with Athabasca. Not much upside so it would be a charitable act, a favour for the government, much like taking over Augustana was. In general I think this would be good though. It gets U of A back to being a university for the whole province, brings in an online component that U of A lacks and brings Athabasca up to a standard that it hasn’t been meeting.

  11. Alvin Finkel: There is no “rigid faculty union” at U of A–Alberta’s Universities Act forbids faculty unions.

  12. I am sorry, but I do not understand the point of making these unsubstantiated claims. At best, they lower faculty and student morale of a wonderful (if embattled) university. At worst, they give the neoliberal hawks a plan to further cut educational institutions in the name of “austerity”.

  13. Jay, site your source. POST-SECONDARY LEARNING ACT, says otherwise.

    Academic staff associations
    85(1) The Lieutenant Governor in Council shall by order establish
    an academic staff association for each public post-secondary
    institution other than the Banff Centre.

  14. I think AU is a master of online education (though we have a lot of room to improve), and it would be a bad idea to cut our funding. One thing we hear all the time is that students LOVE our online services. To undermine our capability of providing those services, either by a funding cut, or a merger with a University that out sources a lot, would be a huge mistake.

    My opinions are my own, and I am not speaking for Athabasca University.

  15. One could read this story as a trial balloon. Governments often feed stories to the press and, today bloggers are another possibility for such stories, to see what the public reaction is and what they can get away with. If there is little or no response then a government may go ahead with its action. I am guessing that davealberta was fed information as I don’t know of many bloggers who have sufficient time to do the type of background work to know what our situation is.

    I question why the spotlight is on Athabasca University as a problem. Like other post-secondary institutions in this province they have been starved of funding by the provincial government. The problem lies with a provincial government that has mismanaged its revenues and given royalty breaks to the oil industry instead of maximizing rents like other oil producing jurisdictions have. A return to a progressive income tax and a modest sales tax would put provincial finances in the black.

    If funding must be pruned why not start with bloated budgets for senior administrators in Alberta’s universities, a severe problem within this province but internationally as well. One might suggest that a target figure of X % be placed on senior administrative costs of universities (a figure that must be lower than today). Let us cut this out first and see where we stand.

    I doubt Athabasca University would be served well by the U of A although some might be tempted by the thought. A more likely possibility is that a cash strapped U of A would look to strip Athabasca University of assets much like airlines do when they take over a competitor. That would not do the town of Athabasca any good, a message that might be delivered to the local MLA and cabinet minister.

  16. Both Jay and Heath are correct in different ways. Faculty at Alberta universities are by legislation members of named academic staff associations. These are not unions under the Labour Act but they have many of the same duties and rights (the Universities Act denies faculty the right to strike, but there is similar legislation for most civil servants in Alberta). And they have collective agreements, which their associations/unions negotiate with management. The collective agreements of the Athabasca University Faculty Association (AUFA) and the AASUA at U of A have many similarities but many differences as well that relate to the different academic cultures of the two institutions. As a sidebar, AUFA is a member of the AFL and so clearly our members (and the member institutions of the AFL) do regard us as a real union.

    I assume that a “merger” of these two institutions would largely be a swallowing of AU by U of A. What would that mean for our faculty? Frankly, we would have to be paid more to do less once we came under the U of A’s collective agreement. For historical reasons, AU faculty have been paid less than faculty at U of A or U of C with the same qualifications, though the margin of difference is far less than it was 20 years ago. Also, we are required to be performing teaching duties 10 months a year as opposed to the 6 months a year at U of A, though the research expectations of us are the same as for professors at the other Alberta universities. If we were suddenly AASUA members, the university would have to provide us with the same terms and conditions as other faculty or risk arbitrations that would force these changes upon them.

    In short, the absorption of AU by the U of A, a university that has until very recently demonstrated only contempt for distance learning,makes no financial sense or sense of any other kind. As others have suggested, Dave’s article provides no evidence that either the universities or the government are actually discussing the killing of AU. So I hope that he is just wrong. There have been over the years ongoing discussions about greater cooperation among the various universities and less duplication of effort. But that is something quite different than one university knocking another one out of existence.

  17. Re: Libarbarian comment:

    ‘…. and brings Athabasca up to a standard that it hasn’t been meeting.’

    It is attention to this type of comment (fabrication, lies, subterfuge) that makes a subject like this dangerous. Athabasca has an excellent reputation, and its standards are a matter of public record.

    As intelligent information consumers, Albertans should examine underlying issue(s) to this article which include the long term effects of government under-funding of Post Secondary Institutions on the schools themselves.

  18. Dr. Raj was bang on.

    AB tories: electoral fraud, physician intimidation, Health Authority Gravy Train, seniors abuse. No sense of fiscal financial displine, no sense of accountability, just lies, coverups and excuses. Billions in the hole, no savings.

    Yep, Raj you were right. Albertans are the most mentally stunted creed on earth and the F. tards they keep voting are kurrupt and inept.

    No structural plan to deal with resources and debt. Feeding frenzy for now. Nothing for the future, no savings no accountability, no innovation.

    Yep, Raj was right about everything he said from day one, almost two years ago.

  19. Robert, can you name one post secondary institution in the world that hasn’t had a student plagiarize a portion or the entirety of an assignment? Don’t be too quick to point fingers.

    David, can you provide any fact behind any of your statements about this so called proposed merger? If not, perhaps clarification is in order.

  20. Alvin, if collaboration is what they want, then the other institutions can outsource to AU if they like, since we do distance ed the best. :D As a result, our funding should go up, not down.

  21. Alvin: Teaching loads vary from faculty to faculty and even from department to department at U of A–so don’t get your hopes up.

  22. @libarbarian
    Coincidentally the upcoming issue of the Faculty of Business news features an AU BComm grad who went on to do his MBA at Queen’s. I’ve heard that’s a pretty good grad school.

  23. @Libarbarian Given that AU is accredited both by Alberta and by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education in the US (alongside Berkeley, Cornell, Carnegie Mellon, Princeton, and Rutgers, to name a few), decent graduate schools welcome AU degrees.

  24. @ Where is the truth?: best not to feed the trolls

    (And in the role of dilettante..)
    From what I understand, Athabasca University’s status is somewhat unique in the province. This has resulted in significant disadvantages in terms of the funding model applied to the institution, and often as not has resulted in chronic budgetary challenges for administration.

    Over the next 10 years, the degree to which distance education goes mobile will, I believe, result in changes that are nothing short of astonishing. AU is positioned to continue to be a world leader in the delivery of distance ed, and we need to continue to focus on this goal. Re: this blog posting, how is the House of Rumor built? And now I am also guilty. It is an unfortunate distraction.

    As all things grow increasingly ‘transitional,’ including the delivery of education, the question as to who we serve and who we must measure ourselves against becomes a truly global one. I’d like to think we can all do a better job of coming up with a game plan in the near future.. one that doesn’t require post-secondary institutions in the province to quibble for scraps at a table of plenty. sorry, pretty ripe, i know :) Now for some quality time with the snow shovel

  25. Dear “Masked Man,” aka Libarbarian. Our graduates have no trouble getting into anybody’s grad program. We’ve surveyed other universities and they assume that students who have managed to do all or an entire degree via distance education are more disciplined and better prepared for graduate education than students who have only ever been spoonfed in classrooms. If you have counter-information, why don’t you provide it plus a source, and maybe even tell us who you are?
    —-

    Here’s the take of our president, Frits Pannekoek, on Dave’s story:

    Colleagues,

    As some of you have undoubtedly heard by now, there is a rumour circulating through the social media about a possible “merger” between the University of Alberta and Athabasca University. You can read about it at http://www.daveberta.ca.

    I want to assure you that there is absolutely no truth to this rumour. The university has had no talks with the University of Alberta nor do we intend to and we have had no talks with the Government of Alberta.

    We do not know where the rumours originate, but we can safely say there is no substance to them. We do, however, collaborate with other colleges and universities under the umbrella of Campus Alberta.

    You will probably be hearing a number of rumours in the run-up to the provincial budget on March 7th, some about AU, some about the PSE sector in general. This is normal in uncertain financial times and I urge everyone to wait and see what the budget brings.

    Frits

  26. Perhaps a merger with AHS? They have $100,000,000 to spare.That would leave AU with $10,000,000 for
    “misc.” Their hierarchy is also pretty “rich”. By my count,one out of every 4.34 positions is a manager.That is approximately 23.04%. If it was a ship,it would likely roll over.

  27. The premier is always yapping that what is good for Alberta is good for Canada. Too bad that philosophy doesn’t extend to Athabasca University who is only funded for Alberta students while providing educational opportunities for all of Canada. There is a dedicated and passionate staff at AU. A letter was sent to the Board OVER 3 years ago from the Faculty Association expressing concern with the leadership at AU and they are only acting now??? Get with the program government types.

  28. In other news…I was walking in the Beltline yesterday, and a “source” told me that earth will collide with the sun in three days.
    Anyone in a relevant position I called to interview (Military, Scientific, Astrology, ect) stated it is not true, but I’m going to post it on my blog anyway. Because if a random, unverifiable source says it’s true, the at the daveberta school of journalism, IT”S NEWS BABY!!

  29. Hi everyone- thanks for the comments.

    I expected this post would get some attention and I am glad to see some engagement in the comments section.

    Some of you have asked that I reveal my sources referenced in this story. I will not be revealing my sources because the information was collected on the condition of anonymity.

    I give my personal assurance to every person who reads this post that I would not have written on this topic if my sources were not impeccable and incredibly reliable.

    Thanks again.

    Cheers,

    Dave

  30. Hello!

    I just have one question, and I hope someone will be able to answer my question.

    If AU and U of A merge, will Athabasca University degrees become worthless because AU won’t exist?

    I just don’t understand what the consequences are going to be.

    Greetings to you all,

    Tina

  31. Dave: Your sources didn’t say anything except that things ‘could’ happen and there is ‘potential’ for action. This is such cheesy reporting and a waste of everyone’s time. Personally I think there are great opportunities for all of Alberta’s education system to be updated, upgraded and reviewed – not only for efficiency but to improve quality. If you want to report on something that really is broken and needs attention, ask some real sources why Alberta’s high school completion rate hasn’t improved in a decade? But create a sound argument, get some help with the sequencing of your writing, cut the innuendo and get your facts clear and straight.

  32. $90 million for computer upgrades? Most students aren’t even Albertans. I hope the government can find a more efficient way to deliver distance learning. Cut down on duplication and cut down bloated administration.

    Can the U of A do better?

  33. Athabasca University is an incredibly valuable resource to Albertans, Canadians, and students of the world at large.

  34. I’m an Ontarian enrolled in a an Athabasca program. Personally I’m having a great experience and am gladly paying ~$750 per course. I think it would be wise for Alberta to invest in online education, seem to have a good hold on it now.

    I really don’t care if I’m served by Athabasca or Alberta U. As long as the quality remains the same or better. In fact Alberta U might be preferable because it could give Athabasca students access to other programs and benefits offered by Alberta U.

  35. This is hogwash. Unless there are credible sources to confirm this, than as the blogger has inadvertently suggested this is nothing more than a rumour people!!!

    As for Libarbarian questioning how valuable an undergrad degree from Athabasca U for admission into a good graduate school…it is extremely valuable. Whether is it graduate school, upgrading to an B.A. from a college diploma..the possibilities are endless.

    As a distance education student (Ontario) I would care if AU merged with U of A. Like PhilipK mentioned AU has decent tuition fees with quality learning material and courses that challenge you to think. If AU merged, I’m sure the fees would go up, and the quality would suffer a bit. It would be equivalent to attending U of T and York University in Toronto where a course will run you $1000+, and there is no one-on-one communication because you are a number, not a name.

  36. Robert and Questioning Soul (Feb 13, 2013 above) use this opportunity to once again bring up and do not question the canard that AU “allowed” a passing grade for a plagiarized essay. I was expecting this story to crawl up out of its crypt again when former premier Ralph Klein died recently, and of course, it did. There was no plagiarism. There was a very minor error in attribution corrected by the instructor. That a newspaper columnist hostile to Klein managed to manufacture an issue out of the incident signals only that accuracy need not be observed while keeping the advertisements separated. I was at the time the AU Bachelor of General Studies program director and had the task of examining the actual facts (along with the unsupported opinions) and found that real information, the law and rules surrounding plagiarism, the essay assignment and other details added up to not much of anything. But the Goddess Rumor lives on among the partisan and unquestioning among us.

  37. I am a graduate of AU’s BSc CIS program.

    One of the major problems facing AU today is that almost every college and university in Canada now offers courses online or through distance learning. The advantage that AU once had as being the sole provider of these services is long gone.

    Compounding the problem is the fact that any “bricks and mortar” university can easily stop providing transfer credits to students for courses completed at AU, thereby forcing students to take all of their courses at the university in question and effectively putting AU out of business.

    There are other issues that I have encountered since graduating from AU. Namely that the BSc CIS program at AU is neither CEAB nor CIPS accredited. That means graduates will have a tough (or nearly impossible) time trying to gain a professional designation. For example, the PEO (Professional Engineers Ontario) does not recognize any online or distance education. The courses I took at AU don’t count for anything to them. For someone that writes software for a living, not being able to ever get licensed as a professional software engineer (despite holding a Bachelors degree) would be analogous to an accounting graduate not being able to get their CPA (Chartered Professional Accountant).

    One has to ask: Why does a university exist if not to prepare people to enter a given profession? How can a university offer a program that does not align with the regulatory bodies that govern that profession?

    I think there is much work to be done at AU. Things have slipped. Standards have fallen. I hope they are able to turn things around.

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