What’s going on at Athabasca University?
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.”
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.
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