Braid: Minister’s Forced Decision Damages Alberta’s Online University

“The government is trying to make the AU responsible for rural economic development. But that’s not AU’s job – that’s higher education, and the school is world famous for that’

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The fired chairman of Athabasca University’s board of trustees says the school is already hurt by aggressive government pressure to move more staff to the small town of Athabasca, north of Edmonton.

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“We’re seeing that enrollment is going down, faculty members don’t want to re-sign contracts, new faculty don’t want to come in,” says Calgary business executive Nancy Laird, speaking publicly for the first time since his dismissal on May 25.

Higher Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides wants up to 500 more staff to live in the town, which has a population of less than 3,000.

“The staff just won’t move there,” Laird said in an interview. “Last time I checked, there were less than 50 property listings in Athabasca. Where would they live?

The shortage of highly qualified professors and teachers “is a global trend, but what’s happening in Athabasca is accelerating that trend.”

Due to public controversy, she adds, “students seem to be losing faith in Athabasca U. They can’t afford to put money aside for a course and then wonder who’s teaching it. They accept a pass for this semester.

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It’s not just a local problem in northern Alberta. This affects both government performance, or lack thereof, and educational opportunities for the province as a whole.

Athabasca U is an online degree-granting school with 40,000 people taking courses. It costs the government less than $50 million a year to operate, compared to more than $600 million for the U of C and nearly $1 billion for the U of A.

Big brick-and-mortar universities are different animals, of course. But AU is by far the best education offering in Alberta for taxpayers and students precisely because it operates almost entirely online with no particular need for an expensive central location.

Premier Jason Kenney and Nicolaides traveled to a town hall meeting on March 24. No principal was there, but the members later got a recording.

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Laird then sent Nicolaides a letter saying, “We see that personal attacks have been made. . . We believe that the integrity of AU governance has been undermined by the Government of Alberta to the extent that it impairs our ability to fulfill our educational mandate and effectively manage negotiations with our union.

Nicolaides fired Laird by Cabinet order and replaced her with Kenney loyalist Byron Nelson, who ran unsuccessfully against the minister for the Calgary-Bow UCP nomination in 2018.

It should be noted that the Athabasca meeting took place during the period when Kenney activists were trying to win him votes for his leadership review.

Prior to that meeting, Laird says, Nicolaides was “delighted” with the direction of UA, including the hiring of renowned e-learning expert Dr. Peter Scott as chair.

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“I got huge praise from the minister and then it all turned around like it never happened. I still can’t draw a rational line of sight between where we were then and where we are now.

Nicolaides is threatening to cut school funding of about $3.4 million a month if the AU does not align with the plan to boost jobs in the city.

He appears to be moderating somewhat, perhaps hoping for a compromise, but hasn’t backed down from the funding cut.

Imposing a cut would be the dumbest thing a minister has done in the long annals of tinkering with higher education, including the layers of new red tape imposed on all schools as they try to meet targets of the government.

Over 70% of the school’s funding comes from tuition fees, less than 25% from the government.

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However, the 25% is important. Laird says that losing him would practically destroy the university.

Don’t imagine that the UCP is just trying to save money. If the forced march to Athabasca is attempted, there will inevitably be much more public spending on infrastructure, including housing.

Athabasca University.
Athabasca University. Postmedia, file

Athabasca U is an “open” university, which means anyone 16 or older can take a course, regardless of their educational background.

For more than 40 years, thousands of Albertans who couldn’t get into a traditional school have improved their lives, got better jobs and earned respected degrees.

At first, the professors gave courses remotely by telephone and mail, but they also brought higher education to the First Nations of Alberta with courses on the reserves. Courses were conducted on the islands of British Columbia and even on fishing boats.

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In the early 1980s, the PC government of Lougheed decreed that the school should be based in Athabasca. Many teachers then refused to move.

Since then, there has been a difficult relationship with the townspeople who are naturally both proud and touchy. In recent years, the number of on-site employees has fallen to less than 300.

Laird suggests that existing facilities be repurposed to better help the local economy, perhaps with a major research facility. This would leave the AU free to become more decentralized and almost entirely virtual.

“The government is trying to make the AU responsible for rural economic development,” she says. “But that’s not AU’s job – that’s higher education, and the school is world famous for that.

“We have expressed our willingness to work with Rural Development Minister Nate Horner to provide whatever support we can within our education mandate.

As for Nicolaides’ demand that leaders move to the city, Laird said, “It’s not an insult to Athabasca or its people to say they won’t go. The talent market is so tight that it is very difficult for a small town, in Alberta or elsewhere, to attract such people.

Nicolaides may be trying to set his targets before a new prime minister arrives after the October 6 leadership vote. Whether he will be there to see them through is another story.

Don Braid’s column appears regularly in the Herald.

Twitter: @DonBraid

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