Alberta Politics

Will the NDP save or shutter Athabasca University?

Residents of one northern Alberta community want to know what Alberta’s new New Democratic Party government has planned for their local university.

Residents of one northern Alberta community want to know what Alberta’s new New Democratic Party government has planned for their local university.

Peter McKinnon
Peter MacKinnon

Athabasca University, the province’s largest distance-learning institution employs more than 400 people in Athabasca, making it the largest employer in the town of 3,000.

There is significant fear in the town about the consequences of the university closing or relocating to a larger urban centre, like Edmonton.

In recent years, Athabasca University has been the source of much controversy, ranging from illegal political donations made to the Progressive Conservative Party to claims of financial insolvency.

In 2012, staff called for then-university president Frits Pannekoek to retire, citing questions around illegal donations to the PC Party and the institution’s finances, including the depletion of its reserve fund.

In 2013, four of the institution’s vice-presidents and associate vice-presidents had their positions apparently terminated without explanation to the public shortly after the Public Accounts Committee called the university out for its fiscal mismanagement. And after denying there were financial problems in 2012, the institution cut around 100 positions in 2013, citing financial difficulties.

Colin Piquette NDP
Colin Piquette

During those cuts, sources in government reported that discussions were taking place to merge parts of Athabasca with the University of Alberta, talks that then-PC cabinet minister Thomas Lukaszuk said he was not aware of.

PC MLA Jeff Johnson was unseated by NDP candidate Colin Piquette in this year’s provincial election, with the future of the university being a key issue for voters in the area. The election of an NDP MLA has led locals to believe Mr. Piquette will take action to ensure the university stays open and remains in Athabasca.

In June 2015, Athabasca University interim president Peter MacKinnon released a task force report on the university’s sustainability, which indicated the institution was facing insolvency in the 2015/2016 financial year. The report blamed over-reliance on tuition fees, the state of its information technology infrastructure, as well as staff compensation and the university’s location, for the university’s financial difficulties.

Lori Sigurdson NDP
Lori Sigurdson

While the task force report focused on alarming terms like ”insolvency,” the university had small surpluses in its 2013/2014 and 2014/2015 budgets.

Some observers in the community have suggested that Mr. MacKinnon is playing chicken with the government in an attempt to force new Advanced Education Minister Lori Sigurdson to commit to keeping the university in Athabasca.

Current Wildrose MLA Jason Nixon was a student representative on Mr. MacKinnon’s task force.

In response to the report, the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 3911, Alberta Union of Provincial Employees Local 69 and the Athabasca University Faculty Association have launched a petition demanding the government ensure Athabasca University and its jobs remain in Athabasca.

Jeff Johnson Alberta Education Minister MLA
Jeff Johnson

Politically speaking, it may have been an easier decision for the new government to make if an NDP MLA was not currently representing the area. If the constituency had remained PC territory, the NDP would not have to worry about Mr. Piquette’s re-election chances in 2019.

Now the NDP government is stuck in an odd position. Even if the new government wanted to relocate the institution, it would not be difficult to reallocate extra funds in the provincial budget to cover the deficits.

If the NDP’s first budget is focused on job creation and stimulus, then protecting 400 jobs in Athabasca should be on the list of priorities.

The new government also faces the question about what to do with the university’s board of governors after years of controversy. Like several universities and colleges across Alberta, the board is headed by someone with strong political connections to the old governing party.

Jason Nixon Wildrose Rocky Mountain House Rimbey Sundre
Jason Nixon

Acting chair Marg Mrazek is a former president of the PC Party. While the Post-Secondary Learning Act gives the government the ability to replace the board, with Ms. Mrazek’s term is set to expire on July 24, 2016 the NDP may wait until that date before replacing the Tory appointee.

In many ways, Athabasca University is a microcosm for the challenges of regime change after forty-four years of Progressive Conservative government in Alberta.

But Athabasca University may be able to use its NDP connections to apply pressure to the new government. Mr. MacKinnon is the husband of former Saskatchewan NDP MLA and Finance Minister Janice MacKinnon, who served in Roy Romanow‘s cabinet in the 1990s. Premier Rachel Notley‘s Chief of Staff, Brian Topp, was Mr. Romanow’s deputy chief of staff during that period.

While the new government has been able to remain coy about the future of the institution in its first four months in office, residents of Athabasca will demand to know what the NDP has planned for their university. They may find out this week when Ms. Sigurdson is scheduled to meet with Ms. Mrazek and Mr. MacKinnon.

13 replies on “Will the NDP save or shutter Athabasca University?”

I would hope that the NDP government will do three things for the university where I was professor of Canadian history for 36 years. One is to get rid of the Tory appointees on the board and replace them with people who have the interests of the university and universities more generally at heart. The second is to get rid of Acting President Mackinnon whose dealings with all three unions have been hostile and whose report, while it may be intended, as you say, to put pressure on the government, insults the staff and the community. The third is to put the university on a solid financial basis by ending the Tory discrimination against Athabasca University by funding ALL full-time equivalent enrolments regardless of students’ addresses. Peter Lougheed regarded Athabasca University, like the Canadian Encyclopedia, as Alberta’s gift to all Canadians. Our budget when he was premier reflected our total enrolments. Ralph Klein changed the financing rules such that the only enrolments that get government subsidies in Alberta are enrolments with Alberta addresses. That has little impact on the other Alberta universities since few of their students, while they are students, live only out of province. Athabasca students, regardless of their origins, can live in Lac Megantic or Halifax as easily as in Camrose or Canmore. So the university gets a subsidy for only a third of its students. If all students in Alberta universities were treated the same–after all, they all create the same amount of work for professors, librarians, the registry, support staff, etc.–then Athabasca University would not have financial issues.

Athabasca University could become a campus of the University of Alberta and still remain in Athabasca. It would be like the Augustana Faculty in Camrose. The new Faculty of Athabasca could retain its frontline staff but would lose its top heavy administration as the President would be demoted to Dean and the other executives would disappear.

So, the NDP are getting blasted for something they’ve said nothing about, had nothing to do with, and to date have no opinion on? What’s next – demanding that they guarantee that they won’t relocate the capitol building to Okotoks?

Peter McKinnon deserves credit for taking on the unions at Athabasca University. It is the unions fault and their fault alone that the school is in trouble. Time for some wage cuts all around thre board.

The unions at Athabasca University deserve credit for taking on Peter McKinnon and the PC cronies on the Board of Governors. It is the PCs and their cronies’ fault the school is in trouble. Time for some new Board of Governor members, president and administrators with vision and competence.

Re: Steve.. Pay cuts.. ok sure, might as well sign me up for EI then. The Support staff don’t make a whole lot. I’m mid ranks in seniority and in the top paid support group. I have my full time job at AU, and I have 3 part time jobs just to cover the bills. And at only $800/mo my rent is cheap. My military pension makes my vehicle payment. I don’t live an extravagant live style, I take a 1 week vacation every 2 years to go to the mountains, other than that I use my vacation days to work at my other jobs. First world problems, I know.

What AU needs to do is change policies so they can hire full time staff easier (even if only on term positions) rather than having to hire contractors who AU is paying out for at 2 to 3 times the cost of an employee.

If you go over the past 8 or so years, we’ve gotten 0% raises, I think we got 2% for 2 years, we’re pushing 2.5 years without a contract, our salaries haven’t been keeping up with inflation. I did the math about 10 or so months ago when people were calling for us to get a 5% paycut, when you factored in inflation staff spending power equated to about a 11% cut in salaries.

The previous president told the staff, “we spent the reserves so we’ll actually be poor, and the gov will have to give us more money”. The staff had a vote of no confidence on him, the gov did nothing, and what did the board do? They brought him back for another term.

With merging with UofA, you’d loose pretty much all of AU’s IT department, maybe keep a couple people on hand to keep the network and phones running. AU policies would become UofA policies, so our information centre and most of Registry might go away, the library would be redundant as well. Without putting a lot of thought into it, you’d easily loose 50-75% of the jobs at AU by merging with UofA.

Just my $0.06… all of what I have left in my pocket.

Why, Steve, would you advocate closing the most cost-effective university in Alberta that also allows students to study anywhere and anytime? Wouldn’t the more fiscally prudent decision be to provide it with adequate funding and the necessary leadership for it to do its job?

Because a university is in the middle of nowhere close it?

Some would argue Edmonton is in the middle of nowhere, so should we close the University of Alberta too? How about closing the University of Lethbridge? Where is that anyway?

If you want to save money, end subsidies to oil and gas companies, and tax breaks for the top 1%.

Thank you!

But, I was just agreeing with you. Let’s close all the universities in the middle of nowhere.

That’s what you wrote right?

I was a student at Athabasca University back when it was in Edmonton (where it started). It was not named for the city but for the native word Athabasca, meaning “grass or reeds here and there”. I hope it is not closed.

I am from and live in Northern Manitoba. Without Athabasca University I would have never been able to obtain a Master’s Degree. The university “being in the bush” was in fact, appealing to me, as the quality of the courses in my opinion were superb compared to other university courses I have taken.

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