October 21, 2014

What’s going on at Athabasca University?

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Athabasca University's headquarters

Four senior administrators had their positions apparently terminated last week at Athabasca University (AU), a fully distance university in the province of Alberta.

These four positions are core to the university: VP and AVP Academic, VP Technology, and AVP Finance.

It may be significant that this followed a sitting of the province’s Standing Committee on Public Accounts on December 5 that discussed the annual report of the province’s Ministry for Advanced Education, and in particular an auditor’s report on Athabasca University. The following points were raised by the elected representatives on the Standing Committee, and answered by the university’s Vice-President, Academic:

  • Athabasca University has 40,000 enrollments, which works out at just under 8,000 full-time equivalent places. Athabasca University serves not only Alberta, but students from across Canada (in fact only 38% come from Alberta, with slightly more coming from Ontario).
  • enrollments have been flat in the last two years (following several years where enrollments was growing at a rate of 10%); the decline in numbers has been from students outside the province
  • the university is running a deficit and planned to be in deficit for at least another three years; according to the chair of the Public Accounts committee, it is in the worst financial state of all Alberta’s 26 public post-secondary institutions
  • according to a study by KPMG, both from a capital and an operating perspective AU has the lowest costs of any of their peer institutions in Alberta
  • the university had not yet put in place a full disaster recovery plan and recovery capability for its main data centre and student services (which requires an estimated expenditure of $25 million), although a partial plan is already in place
  • AU faculty do research; AU’s research focus is on digital technology innovation, the ecology of the Athabasca River basin, and project management for the oil and gas industry. Also there is a focus on educational technology research, such as online assessment, open educational resources and e-textbooks
  • while the university has a set of performance indicators (as required by the province), it has no targets for them in its annual plan to the government and board of governors
  • questions were raised about how AU was responding to what competitors were doing with innovation in online learning, both in Canada, and in the USA (such as the University of Phoenix)

Also, according the Edmonton Journal (February 22) the university came under criticism in 2012 when a CBC investigation revealed that the university had made more than $10,000 in illegal donations to the provincial Progressive Conservative party, with the knowledge of senior university executives including its President, Frits Pannekoek. This led the faculty union to call for the resignation of the President.

The daveberta.com blog states:

The university’s 2012-2013 approved operating budget was estimated to be more than $137 million. 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.

Frits Pannekoek announced last week that rumours that his university might be merged with the University of Alberta in light of potential funding cuts to post-secondary institutions in the March 7 provincial budget “are totally without foundation. … Such speculation is beyond our control, but we should not allow ourselves to fall victim to fear mongering.”

Comment

I realise that this leaves more questions unanswered as answered.

The university has given no reason for these firings, citing personal confidentiality issues (in fact, we don’t even know if they were fired or quit, but it does look as if they were fired.).

And why was the VP Academic left dealing with issues of financial governance before the Public Accounts Committee (then later fired)? (Incidentally, also, where was the Minister for Advanced Education, the senior Ministry civil servant, and the Chair of the Board of Governors?). There seems to be a serious governance failure here, with the key players all conveniently missing in action.

Maybe I’ve been reading too much Hilary Mandel, but the real reason behind the execution of Ann Boleyn and her courtiers was Henry VIII’s impotence. Draw your own conclusion here.

Sources

Alberta Legislative Assembly (2012) Enterprise and Advanced Education Standing Committee on Public Accounts, Edmonton, Alberta, December 5

Sinnema, J. (2013) Major shakeup at Athabasca University sets rumours flying, Edmonton Journal, February 22

Courmoyer, D. (2013) Is the Government pulling the plug on Athabasca University? daveberta.ca, February 13

Hislop, M. (2013) Athabasca University – Public deserves to know what’s happening Beacon News, February 23

Comments

  1. Tony, thanks for sharing this. As our only online university in Canada I hope they can pull it together. They are watched very closely on a global basis. Maybe it is time for a change in leadership.

  2. Tony

    As a former executive I could go on, but it seems to be pretty clear that the President / CEO never understood the business model of AU (enrollment driven revenue, lack of program students, predicted decline in enrollments – my last presentation to the leadership with a prediction close to what happened based on regression models – and the growing and increasingly unaffordable costs of faculty).

    The President / CEO “bought into” the need to substantially expand faculty numbers (he did so and built them a new building), but this is also the key reason why the deficit exists. It also exists because of other decisions – creating AU Press, not closing unproductive programs, growth in key “soft” costs – as well as other operational matters (reduced churn of students for a course, lowering revenue; increased admin costs, growing travel costs).

    What was needed in 2005 was a fundamental change of AU’s business model. This is now mission imperative for survival. Doing more of the same and expecting different results…will not work. We can expect things to get worse before they get better.

    The core strategy of the last administration seemed to be to try persuade the GoA to increase its base grants to AU – the spending down of the substantial reserves were intended to increase the probability of this occurring. (Tell this to the marines!).

    The GoA over the last twenty five years has been reducing in real terms its contribution to institutions and relying on them to increase student fees. The UofA and UofC experience this with annual reductions in REAL $$ terms of the value of GoA’s contribution, which is why the UofA has a deficit of some $12 million and climbing. The Board placed its bets and lost.

    On March 7th the GoA will bring down the Provincial budget. Since they cant fund compulsory education (K-12) at a reasonable rate (the Alberta Teachers Association anticipate some 1,500 – 2,000 teacher lay offs and the cancellation of the world-class Alberta Initiative on School Improvement), it is confidently expected that the college and university sector will be hit hard with 2-4 years of 0 increase in budgets – effectively a 6% cut for each year of zero.

    So now AU is searching for a new President – the current President and Vice Chancellor having signaled his intention to leave. The incoming leadership team will need to:

    1. Redefine the mission, mandate and purpose of AU in the light of fiscal reality and do some serious restructuring. Some things will need to go, others change significantly and new approaches to finance found.
    2. Develop a new business model for the institution which does not rely on the same set of assumptions driving the current (failing) model.
    3. Rebuild trust, confidence and morale of the staff left behind after 2 and manage 2 in such a way as to do it quickly and efficiently.
    4. Rebuild the brand, sadly damaged in this process – especially with major stakeholders, such as the GoA, the post-secondary community in Canada and its student and alumni body.
    5. Boldly innovate in areas that will help it re position in key growth markets.

    As I spend time in the corridors of GoA I have heard talk of a potential P3 (public private partnership) with the idea that someone like Pearson may wish to operate AU on behalf of the GoA. This is reasonably wild, four pints of beer later talk, but it is talk and is around. Not smart talk at all.

    So, I feel very sad for the very smart, capable people at AU (and even sadder for those smart and capable people no longer there through their recent dismissal). its students and its alumni. Time for a major turnaround. Also, time to support AU.

    Stephen Murgatroyd, PhD FRSA, FBPsS
    former Dean,Faculty of Administrative Studies (now the School of Business), founder of Centre for Innovative Management and Executive Director at AU.

    • Many thanks for his, Steve. Like you I want Athabasca University to succeed. But it has needed to change for a considerable number of years.

      This is really sad. Canada may well lose a unique institution that provides an essential service. It needs people like yourself and many of the staff still working there to build a vision for open and distance learning that recognizes the changes that are happening all round it. Something terribly wrong has happened with regard to its management and governance, and I hope the government of Alberta, AU’s staff and the Board of Governors can turn this around.

  3. Former AU contractor says:

    There are some good people working and teaching at AU. There are also problems with lack of direction, nepotism and other mismanagement. Bringing in people who want to get things done and then letting them go doesn’t fix that.

  4. Jane Ross, PhD says:

    Speaking personally, I am rather surprised that the more broadly-based public discussions of matters concerning higher education in Alberta have taken so long to get off the ground. It is time to have them, they are overdue.

    From previous positions in global business as well as global online graduate-level education, it is surprises me that there has been and continues to be so much resistance to educating in different ways, making education more available to people across the lifespan who want and need it.

    Athabasca University positioned itself well to provide this kind of education, albeit presenting itself more as “Canada’s Open University” than as an Alberta-based open university. Possibly this is part of the current problem … an apparent misalignment between funding source and the brand that was designed to grow the university. I must say I was very surprised to be part of an international meeting of universities having online education and observe that Athabasca University did not once mention that it was based in Alberta (?). As an Albertan, but working for a university of another jurisdiction, I felt badly that the “real” home of Athabasca University was not mentioned.

    There are several examples from elsewhere where higher education is already linked within a national or regional jurisdiction:

    – The Open University of UK is what it is, UK-based and delivering programs to UK and the world. There is clarity in its brand and mission.

    – The UK has had their UKandU; an attempt to consolidate the offerings of UK institutions for international recruitment purposes.

    – Malaysia has had a practice in place since the late 90s to brand “education” in a national way.

    The various entities of public universities in the USA have been linked together for some time; e.g., California System, University of Maryland System, State University of New York and its many components.

    It seems time that the universities and colleges of Alberta and Canada start to use public monies better … On more than one occasion I have been in Canadian embassies or at higher education fairs abroad when this problem has been identified by harried staff attempting to explain the differences to prospective clients from the smorgasbord of programs on offer by Canadian or Alberta-based colleges and universities.

    I support attempts to rationalize the offerings of Alberta and Canadian-based universities and colleges in new ways so as to present their offerings with increased clarity to prospective markets (students, organizations, countries, etc.). Technology can be used to a much greater extent.

    As a well educated and educationally minded business person who “buys my own gas and paper clips” (and does not have access to operations funds, research support and other funding/support systems), it is often surprising to observe the sense of entitlement and apparent lack of business sense within the academies. This needs to change. As someone at MacEwan once said: “everyone needs to understand the mission and market the institution”).

    I agree with Stephen Murgatroyd that the matter of “business models” is long overdue in many institutions of higher learning. After all, “finance competency” should be something that humans of any age know how to do.

    In my experience of working with several global organizations that DO have appropriate and well aligned mission-mandate-purpose in light of fiscal realities as well as business models that are clear and understood by staff across organizations, it is reasonable to expect the same of Alberta institutions of education and higher education.

    Inattention to these vital matters has sadly eroded international and local confidence in the higher education of Alberta and Canada.

    But the times of leaving things to the experts are over — it is good that people here at home are talking and wondering about things. Given the histories of higher education in service, why do we tolerate such high executive salaries — in higher education, health, etc.?

    In my view it seems a good time to rethink higher education from many angles – and be ready for the bold new opportunities that exist all around us. As William Bridges reminds us, we cannot manage change (it happens), but we can try to manage our own transitions as changes occur.

    In re/examining the value of universities from their ancient roots, Gordon Graham (2002) wrote “UNIVERSITIES – THE RECOVERY OF AN IDEA”.

    Why is recovering the university important? What does this involve? How will it happen?

    All the best to Athabasca University and the others in the demanding, globalizing days ahead!

    Jane Ross, MPhil, PhD
    Battle River Country, Alberta

    • Hello,

      I offer my perspective as a student in the Ed. D. program and a Canadian, albeit not an Albertan.

      Hearing talk of the potential disbanding of Athabasca University strikes terror. What about me and my fellow students who are dutifully going through the hoops to get a degree from Athabasca. Will that degree now be tarnished even if the institution survives? Should I be reminding my supervisors of this, if someone makes much ado about nothing say I haven’t read every relevant article or don’t have all my citations done properly or whatever.

      What would be the plan for all the students who trusted the integrity of the institution…we pay our gas and buy our paper clips too.

      Yeah I think we need a nation wide systemic reform (like a Bologna equivalent), and that Athabasca represents at least in English Canada, I guess it would be Laval in French Canada, Canada’s Open(Anglo) University. Maybe there is such a thing as change management…see the HBR blog, by Gregory Shea and Carrie Solomon, Change Management is Bigger than Leadership on the business initiatives undertake at Hyundai which were very successful. http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2013/03/change_management_is_bigger_th.html

      Certainly we need new thinking, new alignments, and new attitudes in universities for Canadian society to compete in the global knowledge economy.

      It’s like both the best of times and the worst of times for universities now, and Athabasca is at the nexus. (See post-modernism, universities and Bloland’s articles).

      My research concerns encouraging faculty to shuffle off complacency and maybe, be concerned with program realignment to encourage greater rates of completion and lesser times to completion.

      I’d better get on with it…

      Sheri Oberman, Ed. D. student and inaugural VP Academic AUGSA
      Winnipeg, Manitoba

  5. worried wart says:

    I am a bit worried as a distance student in Toronto. I am completing courses towards the CMA designation. I like the flexibility as a small business owner.It is very difficult to communicate with the staff. It was not always like this. I may not get credit for a course I am doing.I think I will continue my education in Toronto. I don’t want to get caught in the storm. They are doing nothing to reassure me.

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