Alberta Politics

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.