March 29, 2017

Advice to students about Athabasca University

Graduation ceremony at Athabasca University: will 2018 be the last?

Graduation ceremony at Athabasca University: will 2018 be the last?

Anxious students

Not surprisingly, the turmoil at Athabasca University is causing concern for at least some students, and I recognise that I am responsible for some of this anxiety. For instance, I received the following e-mail from one student (reproduced with permission):

Hi Tony, I am thankful for your article on Athabasca’s financial crisis.  This leaves students such as myself in a quandary.  I am interested in transferring to AU from [another Alberta institution] because of my need for more flexibility.  However the report that was just released, made my decision to switch very concerning.  According to the article, and the op-ed you published, it seems like if things aren’t changed at AU then I could be looking for another university in 2016 (in the middle of my degree)…  Obviously this concerns me greatly… what are your thoughts to students?  Do we avoid AU until they get their act together? or do we press on and hope they know what they are doing and won’t screw us over in the end ? Thanks for any thoughts you have.

These are very good questions, and I think AU’s university administration should, if it has not done so already, be giving clear statements or answers to students and potential students about what they should expect over the next five years, given its recent report on sustainability.

My advice to students

However, I could find nothing about the sustainability report and what it could mean for students on the myAU portal (‘a web portal system that provides Athabasca University (AU) students with individualized web services and information’) or in AU News, so here’s my advice to students.

1. Listen carefully to what AU and the provincial government say about the future of the university, and give more weight to that than to my advice. I’m over 1,000 kilometres away and am not well connected these days to AU. Having said that, be circumspect. You may well have to read between the lines, so I’ll give some advice about what I’m looking for.

2. Don’t panic! AU is unlikely to shut down within the next three or even five years. It may go into a deficit in 2017-2018, but that would not be unusual for a university in Canada, nor devastating. What matters is that AU and/or the provincial government have a plan in place to bring it back to a balanced operating budget by 2020. For most current students and even some potential students transferring in, this should be long enough for most of you to complete your qualifications.

For students looking over the next two years or so to start a full degree from Athabasca, this may be more problematic, but by the time you come to make that decision, the situation should be clearer.

It is a harder decision for those thinking about starting in 2015-2016, especially if you are not resident in Alberta.  I would expect any Alberta government and the university to put in place transfer arrangements for Albertan students who start a program at AU but cannot complete it because of decisions by the government or university. For those outside the province, this will likely be much more difficult, unless you are in British Columbia, which has in place a pretty good credit transfer system with Alberta that would include AU credits.

In general, then, I would advise that at least for the next six months, assume that it will be business as usual at Athabasca. But in this period, watch for the following:

3. Good signs. The provincial government replaces the Board and a new President is appointed on a normal 3-5 year contract, with a mandate to produce a new vision for the university and a sustainable financial/business plan that will support that vision.

4. Bad signs: 

  • the above doesn’t happen by the end of this year;
  • the government extends the existing President’s contract by one year or appoints another one year President;
  • the AU faculty and/or staff go on strike;
  • lots of faculty and staff start leaving.

What should you do as a student (or potential student)

Write to Marcia Nelson, Deputy Minister of Innovation and Advanced Education, and state:

  • why Athabasca University is important to you, and in particular what it offers that is not available elsewhere;
  • that you are concerned about the future of the university, why you are concerned, and how this may affect your study plans;
  • what you would like to see, for instance, a new President, Board and senior administration, a vision for the future, a commitment from the Alberta government to support the university, etc.

Writing to the Deputy Minister could make a lot of difference, as the government has some difficult decisions to make over the next few months.

Lastly, Athabasca University is in my view a really important, unique institution that does or should add value to not only Alberta’s but also Canada’s post-secondary education system, but AU is in need of urgent renewal and change. Students (and alumni) can and should have  a major role in ensuring that this happens.

Comments

  1. Wayne Brehaut says:

    “3. Good signs.” Another would be that AU begins to treat Tutors and Academic Experts with the respect they deserve as full academics. While this may be true for some in some units of some faculties, but it has seldom been true for me in the 10 years I’ve been tutoring since retiring as a faculty member in Computing and Information Systems. The Faculty of Science and Technology had apparently been planning to implement the School of Business Call Centre (as it was originally known as) in FST for more than six years before this was implemented yet no Tutor was ever consulted or even informed of this so far as I can determine: I certainly wasn’t. I was demoted from Tutor to AE January 1, 2015, and my income from still tutoring and marking and keeping up with my subject areas has decreased so much that I find it’s no longer worth my time to continue working for AU.

    “4. Bad signs…the AU faculty and/or staff go on strike;” This cannot happen for some until a more enlightened government remedies the ‘“gratuitous insult” to academic staff’ (http://socialiststudies.com/article/viewFile/23797/17682) of Bill 43’s “explicit ban on the right of academic staff associations to strike.”

  2. Tom Oates says:

    Hi Tony,

    As a former employee of the university & resident of Alberta you article seems to overlook a couple of factors. First, as you point out that you live nearly 1000 km away, if you did you would know that the Government of Alberta (under the PC of the day, & my history could be wrong) that employee’s of the Government (including university employee’s/professor’s) CANNOT go on strike as they have been deemed essential services. Case in point, If you paid to particular attention Albertan Politics you would have noticed that when the Government workers at the Remand Center (in Edmonton) went on strike the Government of the Day introduced legislation that would fine unions a million day for wildcat strikes. The union had concerns over occupational health & safety issues that were being ignored by the government. As a last resort the union chose to go on a strike to make the issues be known.

    Secondly, you neglected to mention in your article that seems to have caused a panic amongst 1 student, & maybe more. The University is established by an Act created by the Government of Alberta, as the university is created by act the university is still responsible to the Government, & the Government can/should help the university out. Athabasca University is not a private institution, but a public accountable institution such as health care regions. If anything the Government of Alberta should step in and see how the university is spending its resources, as well as make the board & the executive (current & past) more accountable in making financial decisions.

    Third, there is a transfer agreement amongst Alberta universities & colleges. The Government of Alberta has this information published on it’s website, & prior to the PC’s being kicked out of office, they established Campus Alberta so students from colleges or universities could transfer without any problems or having to do any courses over again. The government could not understand why a student would have to redo a course in a same program at two different institutions, example being Organization Behaviour course in Bachelor of Commerce degree.

    I noticed on your bio that you have done work with Open University in the UK, as well as the Open University in BC now called TRU I think but I could be wrong. From my understanding the difference between Open University in the UK & Athabasca University is the UK directly funds Open University, with Athabasca University their funding comes directly from the Government of Alberta & not the Federal Government of Canada. The problem for the funding of Athabasca University is unique as the formula created by the Government of Alberta funds the university for Alberta students & not all of Canadian students attending AU. Open University has funding for all UK students regardless of geographic location.

    Given your experience of Open University in the UK, and how unique Athabasca University is not only for Albertan’s, but for all Canadians, shouldn’t your attention be focus on why the Government of Alberta should increase the university’s funding instead of it’s alleged demise? I think that would be a better use of this blog, & not negativity. Look forward to your response.

    Tom

    • Thanks, Tom. Let me deal with each of your points.
      1. You’re right, I was unaware that government employees in Alberta were unable to strike, which seems to be contrary to the Canadian Charter of Rights. Another case for the Supreme Court? Whether it’s legal or not, banning the voluntary withdrawal of labour is a bad way to resolve disputes – they just continue to simmer, and all the good staff eventually leave for positions elsewhere.
      2. It’s not my article that caused the student panic, but the sustainability report that stated AU would be ‘insolvent’ in two years time. All I did was to bring this to the attention of students, which the university did not (at least at the time of writing). You wrote: “the Government of Alberta should step in and see how the university is spending its resources, as well as make the board & the executive (current & past) more accountable in making financial decisions.” That’s exactly my point, but in the meantime, potential students have decisions to make.
      3. The transfer agreement will protect Albertan students, but not the 60-70% of students who are out of province (unless they move to Alberta).
      4. The UKOU may be funded by the HEA of England and Wales, but only to the same proportion as AU. Over the years the UKOU has been forced to increase tuition substantially – also by Conservative governments.
      5. Asking the university to have a clear vision for the future, and a sustainable business plan, is not negativity, but reality. Universities do not have a God-given right to be subsidised perpetually by the public, whatever their performance. I happen to believe that AU is underfunded by government for the job it has to do, but the university administration and Board of Governors are making an awful case as to why it should get more funding. AU really needs to shape up and improve its teaching model and its governance, and denial that this is a problem is the real negativity.

      • Blake Paul says:

        Transfer Agreements aside… there are always course discrepancies that are ‘caught’ in the transcript evaluation when transferring from one institution to another. If you are like me, changing institutions mid-stream of your degree, you run the risk of not having the right course, or redoing a course. This is definitely the case between a large university in Edmonton, and a smaller college that has just become a University. The Large U refuses to accept the first 2 years from the diploma program of the smaller U. This becomes troublesome for students who are just trying to finish a degree. This is just one potential for students to suffer, what about the need to cut costs? ‘Find efficiencies’ seems to be a buzz phrase for, let’s get the same 10 people to do more with less. There is not a scenario in any of this wherein the students are better educated, given the help they need, in the time they need it.

  3. Wayne Burnett says:

    Hi Tony,
    Thanks for your comments on the AU situation. I imagine that you will be returning to this subject in the future. I would be interested in your comments (or the observations of your readers) on:
    a) What makes AU unique, from a student perspective? That’s the best argument for increased government support. What is it that students get from AU that they cannot get from the online initiatives at bricks and mortar universities?
    b) What has been the experience as BCOU was merged into TRU? Did the student experience change? Were there cost savings?
    c) I don’t see the Feds getting involved (as they would be asked to help out TRU, Télé-université, and maybe others) but is there a possibility of seeking an arrangement with Saskatchewan and Manitoba, given that there is already some co-operation in higher education in the Western provinces? Does the UKOU get funding from the Scotland and Norther Ireland governments?
    Cheers, Wayne

    • Good questions, Wayne. I’ll do my best to provide a personal answer but each one is probably better answered by others.

      1. What makes AU unique, from a student perspective. This is a question for the Board and senior administration at Athabasca and it’s negligent to the point of irresponsible that they have not come out with a vision statement that sets this out clearly for government and for their own staff. It isn’t actually hard to do, either. The first is that AU provides open access, enabling those who do not have the necessary qualifications for conventional universities to attempt higher level studies. Alberta needs more trained and qualified workers and has been depending on immigrants from outside Alberta, who need opportunities for continuing and higher education but do not have the qualifications for entry to conventional universities and cannot study full-time. Alberta also has a large and fast growing aboriginal population that is under-educated and desperately needs alternative routes to post-secondary education. None of the conventional universities in Alberta offer full undergraduate degrees at a distance, and there are very few fully online post-graduate degrees from the other universities. I could go on, but AU needs not only to state that these are its main target groups, because they are under-served by the conventional institutions, but also has a plan of action for meeting these needs, which would require some substantial changes to the current curriculum and program offerings, for instance.

      2. What has been the experience as BCOU was merged into TRU? Again, this is best answered by former BCOU students and possibly by the OL division at TRU, but here’s my two cents worth. Initially, it was pretty disastrous for most BCOU students. The BC government had no plan for the 16,000 or so students enrolled in the BCOU through the Open Learning Agency when they closed the OLA in 2003. They tried to get BCIT to take it on (OLA’s campus/building was near to the BCIT campus), but because of the unique union agreements for part-time BCOU faculty/tutors, BCIT did not want to touch it, nor did SFU. This resulted in a period of nearly seven years when these 16,000 students were in limbo, until eventually TRU was forced or decided to take on these students. Again, however, because of the union agreements for BCOU part-time staff, because TRU had recently been changed from a college to a university, and because the ‘open’ students received less grant from government than the on-campus students, many of the campus faculty and administration were hostile to, or reluctant to acknowledge the validity of, ‘open’ or distance learning. As a result TRU has to this day maintained strict apartheid between the campus and the open parts of its operation. Although in recent years the atmosphere has improved considerably, 12 years on, enrolments in the TRU OL division are just getting back to where they were when BCOU was closed down. Perhaps more importantly, like AU, the OL division has not had the funds or the institutional commitment to make the major changes in its teaching model needed as a result of developments in online learning. However, if there are any BCOU students reading this, please let us have your views on this.

      3. Is there a possibility of seeking an arrangement with Saskatchewan and Manitoba? Well, there is already a co-operative of Canadian universities called the Canadian Virtual University, which includes the University of Manitoba, and Thompson Rivers University (TRU) in British Columbia (as well, as, interestingly, Mount Royal University in Alberta). There is automatic transfer of credits between Alberta and BC post-secondary institutions already (I actually went to an announcement about this by the then BC Minister of Advanced Education when embarrassingly he referred to Athabasca University as BC’s new open university, much to the chagrin of the TRU delegation.) So there are already opportunities for economies of scale by sharing courses from other institutions. The issue is whether this has been fully exploited at Athabasca, by using courses from other institutions rather than providing a complete program from within AU. I’m not in a position to answer that question.

      So, Wayne, yes, there are lessons to be learned from the past here, but it would be extraordinary in Canadian higher education for these lessons to be applied in support of rational decision-making.

  4. Vivian Forssman says:

    Hi Tony,
    AU already belongs to Canadian Virtual University. There does not appear to be significant focus on pan-Canadian credit transfer through this organization. My participation on the Advisory of CVU has led me to think it is more about marketing online learning to international students, thanks to funding from the federal Dept of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development, than building credit pathways.

    The CVU Advisory has recently been attempting to aggregate into one common document all degree, diploma and certificate programs, as potentially a first step towards a pan-Canadian transfer system. If more post-secs, with online/blended offerings were a part of CVU, then this organization could potentially be a more powerful influencer for the change we all desire.
    Vivian

    But AU’s issues are now, and the potential of CVU leading a transfer approach for AU students is somewhere in the future.

  5. JoeQStaff says:

    PSERA would any strike action illegal for AU Staff, well the AUPE/AUFA Members anyhow. I know due to a Federal Court thing that will need to be addressed.

    There was a notice put out from Peter on AU’s front page about how not to worry AU isn’t going anywhere in the foreseeable future.

    IT projects are trucking along looking towards the future, so are other projects. The local MLA has sworn to help AU.

    If all student’s were to abandon ship out of fear, that would certainly kill the institution.

  6. Colin Madland says:

    Hi Tony,

    Thanks for your ongoing insight and commentary on what is going on at AU and how TRU-OL might be instructive in the conversation.

    I think I have a unique perspective in that I earned my M.Ed. from AU and am familiar with the ‘AU is in trouble’, or ‘AU will be absorbed by UAlberta’, or both, messages that seem to come along on a regular basis.

    I am also in my sixth year on staff at TRU-OL. Granted, I arrived after the BCOU/UCC merger into TRU (it was this merger that created TRU), so I don’t have firsthand knowledge of the initial years of the merger. But I did arrive at TRU within a couple of years of the merger and have experienced the continuing efforts to harmonize the two divisions.

    Also, my son has just graduated from high school and is registered to begin classes at TRU this fall.

    All that to say that I have a few irons in this fire.

    Indeed, there were barriers to the full integration of the campus-based and distance divisions of the new TRU, although from my perspective, I think using the term ‘strict apartheid’ is a little too strong for what I see. I think that the biggest barrier is the difference in collective agreements for campus (salary) and OL faculty (piece-work), and those differences were made obvious when the two unions failed to merge. The pay models are just too diverse.

    Furthermore, as you mention, the atmosphere has improved in recent years. Partial evidence for this comes from our MBA which allows students to take either campus or OL versions of the same courses towards their degree. A notable number of on-campus faculty are also teaching the OL versions of their courses and are, in my understanding, incorporating teaching strategies and activities from the OL versions into their campus courses. Similar efforts are underway in our M.Ed.

    I agree with your assessment that TRU-OL has lacked funds and institutional commitment to overhaul our teaching model, which is still largely rooted in text-based correspondence courses, which is itself rooted in the fact that we have always designed our courses to fit Blackboard. However, there is one notable initiative, initially coming from senior admin, to examine the role of ‘The LMS’ for both campus and OL courses. This has led to a significant interest from IT to move to one LMS, and it also presents a unique opportunity to update our teaching model to reflect more recent developments in online learning.

    So, I do see that there are improved, and improving, conditions for OL students who have growing access to campus courses and programs as well as a growing institutional commitment to improving our learning model.

    It is interesting to note the dissimilarities in the results of the merger between UCC and BCOU, which faced resistance from the faculty, but has, so far, been successful, and the results of the merger (also in 2005) between TÉLUQ and Université du Québec à Montréal, which, in my limited understanding, had much greater faculty support, but ultimately failed and was dissolved.

    Thanks again for your work!

    Best regards,
    Colin Madland

  7. Chris Baehr says:

    I am a graduate of AU’s BSc CIS program, so I can offer some perspective on everything I thought it was, and what it turned out to be.

    Athabasca University is supposed to be a university that provides EVERYONE (regardless of high school GPA) with the opportunity to pursue a genuine, world class, university level education. It’s supposed to be offering programs that are on par with ANY Canadian university.

    As it turns out, AU’s credential isn’t held in very high regard. It costs a fortune to obtain, and requires the same hard work and effort as a traditional school (maybe even more so), but students receive cut rate service and no access to tutors. Replacing tutors with a call centre reeks of cheapness. Credibility = zero. Having students pay $800 per course to receive a digital textbook that they read through on their own with no online materials or content provided in support? Inexcusable.

    Another major problem facing AU today is that almost every college and university in Canada now offers courses online or through distance learning. The advantage that AU once had as being the sole provider of these services is long gone.

    Compounding the problem is the fact that any “bricks and mortar” university can easily stop providing transfer credits to students for courses completed at AU, thereby forcing students to take all of their courses at the B&M university in question and effectively putting AU out of business.

    There are other issues that I have encountered since graduating from AU. Namely that the BSc CIS program I took at AU is neither CEAB nor CIPS accredited. That means graduates will have a tough (or nearly impossible) time trying to gain a professional designation. For example, the PEO (Professional Engineers Ontario) does not recognize any online or distance education. The courses I took at AU don’t count for anything to them. For someone that writes software for a living, not being able to ever get licensed as a professional software engineer (despite holding a Bachelors degree) would be analogous to an accounting graduate not being able to get their CPA (Chartered Professional Accountant) designation. Again, an inexcusable failure on AU’s part.

    One has to ask: Why does a university exist if not to prepare people to enter a given profession? How can a university offer a dead-end program that does not align with the regulatory bodies that govern that profession?

    I think there is much work to be done at AU. Things have slipped. Standards have fallen. A reputation is slowly being destroyed.

    If elected President at AU, I would fix these issues and get AU back to being what it was always meant to be.

    • I’m considering doing the BCOMM program at Athabasca university, but after reading this post I’m extremely discouraged am I going to find that I went through a program only to not get a job in the end ?

      • Chris Baehr says:

        That’s basically what happened to me. I have never been able to find work in my field since graduating. None of the employers that I’ve spoken to around here (in southern Ontario) have ever heard of AU. I keep having to explain where the university is and have to try and reassure them that AU is legitimate. I wouldn’t have to do that if I graduated from the University of Waterloo. It’s inexcusable for a Canadian University to be so unknown in Canada. Someone isn’t doing their job from a marketing and PR standpoint.

        Consider the program I took: BSc CIS. What is a degree in CIS exactly? Does the world need a Bachelor of Science in Computing and Information Systems (which is just a long way of saying COMPUTER SCIENCE) when we already have defacto standard degrees in Software Engineering and Computer Science? Where does CIS fit in? The answer is, it doesn’t. Employers don’t know what I’ve learned. “Information Systems” is an unfamiliar term. Employers only understand SE and CS, not IS.

        Why doesn’t AU have a degree in Software Engineering? If I were President, it would have existed ten years ago already.

        In your case, it’s the same thing again. What is a B.Comm degree exactly? What profession does it line up with? It teaches a little bit of everything, but it’s not specific enough to land a career out of it. You learn some accounting, but not enough to BE an accountant. You learn some statistics, but not enough to be a statistician. You learn a little about business, but not enough to manage one or obtain any such role in a company. So what are you left with? It’s a “general business” degree that doesn’t get you where you want to go. My two cents.

        • Chris

          The issue you have with the PEO not accepting “ANY online or distance education” is not specific to AU and is not caused by AU, nor a reflection on the quality of AU degrees. Perhaps you should be looking to lobby the PEO to change their position, especially considering the movement to online learning by traditional B&M institutions.

          Marketing – that is done, although could be better, but there have been many ads in the Globe and Mail, stories, etc. and the magazine Canadian Business has mentioned the university many times. Perhaps it is incumbent upon the Employers to educate themselves on the educational institutions from which their pool of candidates could come from? See the section below on the Chicago Merchant Exchange Group competition.

          Tutors – students ALWAYS have access to tutors (if the Faculty hasn’t converted yet), or they have access to Academic Experts (just a rename from Tutor to distinguish which model they work under) that work in the Student Success Model. The Issue here is that under the previous model, the Tutors were paid whether they were contacted by the students or not as they were contracted for “x” number of students; i.e. they were paid for work not performed. They also dealt with a number of administrative issues, so overall this is not an efficient model. The Student Success Centre model requires the Academic Experts (Tutors) to record their time spent with each student and they are paid accordingly. The model is a tiered system where the first person answering the call can answer the administrative issues, if the call is truly related to academic learning then it goes to the tutor to address. This frees up more of the tutor’s time and reduces the inefficiency (financial burden) for paying for work not performed. The funds saved by this model can be reinvested into either additional professors, tutors, or even IT systems to improve the delivery of courses and services to students.

          B.Comm – you asked what profession this lines up with and made a bunch of comments that seemed rather “generalized” and finished with your “two cents”. Well, as a Charted Professional Accountant, let me up your comments by a Toonie. Firstly, a B.Comm includes the courses needed to write the professional exam, and AU’s degree is recognized by the appropriate Accounting organization. Secondly, the idea of a university education vs. a trade or technical education is that is is “more well rounded” and NOT targeted to just the basic skills – thus the reason for statistics, organizational behaviour, management, etc. If one was required to study purely the accounting subjects, this would in fact be a disservice by the university in that they have failed to prepare the student for post-grad work and future career opportunities. They would be limited to being just a bookkeeper. Thirdly, a student/recent graduate must recognize that they need to acquire experience in business before they have “enough to manage one or obtain any such role in a company” – they cannot realistically expect to graduate and immediately become a manager. Fourthly, as a designated accountant with 15+ years, I have used my Quantitative Methods (stats) course when I worked in Internal Auditing and had to sample populations and state the degree of confidence, etc. of the results, I had to design surveys, etc.; so the broad base of my B.Comm education did in fact prepare me for my future roles. Finally, the B.Comm is the end for some, that is their choice, but it certainly does prepare one to go on to get a professional accounting degree. Unfortunately, often times the student decides to not pursue the CPA due to the additional years of study, work, articling, etc.

          On a side note, teams of AU B.Comm students compete annually in the Chicago Merchant Exchange (CME Group) competition which started in 2013. There are hundreds of teams of international business students competing, which the top 10% go to Chicago for the final competition. Following are some results:

          April 23, 2014
          For the second year in a row, an Athabasca University team finished in the top ten percent of teams from around the world competing in the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) Group Trading Challenge. The AU Traders finished in an impressive 20th place out of 390 teams, representing 32 countries around the world.

          February 20, 2015
          The preliminary round of the CME Trading Group Challenge is over and not one but TWO of AU’s teams finished in the top 10% of challengers! This is an astounding accomplishment considering the competition: 503 teams from 226 universities in 37 countries, totalling 2,019 students … a group including some of the top universities in the world. In fact, the probability of two teams from the same school reaching the finals is roughly 2%!

          The AU Traders team made another incredible leap in the standings from 62nd place at end of day yesterday all the way to 23rd place today. In two days, the team managed to move from 114th place to 23rd – a phenomenal accomplishment. Team Far & Wide, on the other hand, lept to 20th place at the very beginning of the competition and held firm in that spot through to the very end!

          November 25, 2016
          Athabasca University’s Faculty of Business sent their first team to the CME Trading Challenge in 2013. Since then we have expanded and in 2016 sent four teams to participate. The competition was the fiercest it has ever been this year and although AU team The Generals put up a relentless fight to the end, they were unfortunately, unable to finish in the top 50. However, because of the massive gains they made in their final push – moving up over 200 spots in one day – they were invited to Chicago to take part in the Market Education Conference.

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