November 27, 2015

Don’t want to retire? Alternatives to dying on campus

Listen with webReader

Tony looking old

Kaskie, B. et al. (2012) Promoting Workplace Longevity and Desirable Retirement Pathways Within Academic Institutions TIAFF-CREF Institute, March

Marcus, J. (2015) Aging faculty who won’t leave thwart universities’ attempts to cut costs The Hechinger Report, October 9

The problem

I couldn’t resist this one. Students who wish their boring old prof would just die in the middle of his lecture should be careful what they wish for: it’s increasingly likely to happen.

The problem is that old, tenured faculty just won’t quit, goddammit, now that mandatory retirement at 65 has been abolished. (I retired when there was still mandatory retirement. Three years later I got a letter from the Faculty Association saying that mandatory retirement had been abolished at UBC. I was terrified: I thought I would have to go back.)

While 36 percent of all workers plan to put off their retirements beyond the age of 65, the proportion of university and college faculty who intend to delay stepping down is more than double that, according to Kaskie et al., who are from the University of Iowa.

The Hechinger Report reports that:

It’s a big, big problem for universities that are trying to cut costs and improve productivity, making it harder for them to respond to declining enrollments and changing student demand for new kinds of majors, and blocking younger PhDs from entering the workforce.

Kaskie et al. note that:

Developing a strategic response to the continued aging of the academic workforce must become a higher priority among leaders of higher education.

They go on to suggest a number of such strategic responses:

  • wellness programs tailored for aging employees; (Yoga for mechanical engineers?)
  • offering workplace accommodations most useful to aging employees (presumably even lower teaching loads, and not after bed time)
  • developing retirement pathways varied in structure and not offered consistently to both faculty and staff. (I don’t see that one getting much traction with activist faculty).

So I’m not sure these strategies will have much effect. Old profs know when they are on to a good thing.


Asking profs to retire early because it will save the university money is more likely to make them stay on longer, just to spite the administration. Indeed, it is the administration you would like to avoid if you can, with all those boring meetings, and the barriers to doing what you really want to do that are constantly thrown up by the administration.

So, as an old and happily retired prof, I have a couple of suggestions for my younger colleagues approaching 65 that eluded the researchers at the University of Iowa.

1. Teach online

Many profs want to stay on for the teaching. You rightly claim that after 35 years in the field, you still have much to offer. You could still do this by stepping down from full-time work, and working as an adjunct faculty teaching online, not so much for the money (you will be shocked to realise how little adjuncts are paid, and even more grateful for your more than generous pension), but for the flexibility and the contact with students.

Online teaching can be done from home, and at whatever time you like, so long as the work is covered. No more dreary commutes and no more avoiding that terrible colleague down the corridor who always buttonholes you with her latest paranoia. Teaching online will not only help keep you engaged and up to date in your subject, but the social media you learn to use may even help you to communicate with your grandchildren.

You will be surprised how satisfying online teaching is (especially if you get some training and experience before you retire.)

2. Become a consultant

This is a more personal solution and won’t work for everyone, but it sure worked for me. Many professors develop strong and valuable contacts outside the university where their expertise is needed and appreciated. You may well be the only person with the knowledge and experience in your field (and if you’re not, what have you been doing for the last 35 years?).

What’s hard for people to understand is the wonderful freedom you have as a self-employed consultant. You can – and should – tell it as it is. No more obfuscating or worrying about the consequences of speaking bluntly. That’s what you are paid for, and as a consultant you may be the only one who can speak truth to power.

I have to say that most of the time, I wasn’t saying anything that someone in the organisation didn’t know already – and listening is even more important than talking as a consultant – but often these people within the organisation who do know are not being listened to. Pay someone else a gob of money for the same advice and it’s more likely to be acted on. And if it isn’t, who cares? You just walk away at the end of the contract, thus avoiding the frustration of so many jobs when you can’t do what you want to do.

However, if you want to be successful as a consultant, there are some things you should do before you leave the university:

  • first, build up that network of external contacts who may be future clients, and develop some goodwill and ‘name recognition’ – perhaps by offering free advice over a cup of coffee;
  • start doing some serious consultancy work before you retire from the university. Most institutions will allow up to one day a week for public service or consultancies. Be careful though to avoid conflict of interest. Make sure your Dean or head of department knows what you are doing. In some circumstances, it may be necessary for contracts to be with the university, rather than you as an individual, while you are still working for the university. If so, discuss the possibility of continuing as an independent contractor when you leave, both with the external client and with your institution. Remember that there are benefits to the university in your leaving; being able to take contracts with you is then part of the negotiation;
  • find a good accountant and incorporate your consultancy company, before you leave. You need to be careful about taxes, and you also need to have a system in place for accurately tracking consultancy income and expenses. It is particularly important to keep your consultancy income and expenses clearly separate from your personal income and expenses. A good accountant can be really helpful with this. It will depend on the circumstances, but I managed to live on my pensions and invest the consultancy income, thus providing financial security well into the future, while having an extra store of money for the occasional special holiday or family gathering.

Becoming a consultant enabled me to work more or less the amount I wanted to until I was 75. Even then I only stopped working as a paid consultant to do the third solution.

3. Write a book

Yes, you’ve probably already written several academic books, but stopping to write a book when you are towards the end of a career has a number of advantages.

First, you need the time that comes when you are no longer working full time. Second, you can step back a little and look at your career’s work in a broader perspective. Probably most of the books you have written have been rather narrowly focused and technical. When you are retired you can see the big picture. Now is a chance to pull all your knowledge and experience together into a readable, more widely accessible book, a kind of lifetime perspective on a topic.

In other words, it’s your legacy. If somewhat challenging – and who doesn’t need a challenge when retiring? – writing such a book can be immensely satisfying.


No, it’s not a good enough reason – for you at any rate – to retire just to save the university some money. But there is life after and outside the university. I had the most satisfying years of work in my life after leaving the university, although I loved what I was doing there. And seriously, universities do need new blood – and you don’t have to spill yours to make it happen.

Online learning and a knowledge-based economy

Listen with webReader
Knowledge-based industries include entertainment, such as video games design

Knowledge-based industries include entertainment, such as video games design

Florida, R. and Spencer, G. (2015) Canada has two growth models, but we’ve been neglecting one Globe and Mail, Oct 7

Boyd, D. (2015) Canada’s party leaders neglecting renewable energy in election talks Globe and Mail, Oct 7

If you are not Canadian, please bear with me in this post, as although these articles focus on Canada, what I have to say will apply to many other economically advanced countries – and I will get to the online learning bit eventually.

The Canadian election

Three parties are running very close in the Canadian federal election, which takes place on October 19. All three parties (Conservatives, who form the current government; the NDP, the official opposition; and the Liberals), have made the economy a central plank of their campaign. In essence the election is being fought primarily on which party is best able to advance the Canadian economy.

Surprisingly though all three parties are very backward looking in their economic strategies. The Conservative government has based its economic strategy primarily around the resource-based industries of oil and mining extraction, and agriculture. It is also supporting free trade through free trade agreements with Europe (CETA) and 22 countries around the Pacific (TPP) as well as the 25 year old North American free trade agreement between Canada, the USA and Mexico (NAFTA), but still with high tariffs and protection for the Canadian dairy industry. Interestingly, there has been almost no discussion by the major Canadian political parties about the copyright and intellectual property agreements in these pacts, yet these have tremendous implications for developing home-grown innovative industries.

The Conservative economic strategy has recently run into severe problems due to a crash in commodity prices, and the oil industry in particular is in trouble due to excess capacity, low prices and increasing environmental and aboriginal land claim pressures that have resulted in difficulties in getting the oil to market.

The NDP, which has its roots in labour and the union movement, is pushing to support manufacturing industries, such as auto production. The Liberals are focusing on taxation and funding policies that are aimed at encouraging small businesses and protecting the current economy. The Liberals though have pledged a small increase (around ($100 million) to support incubators and new start-ups.

These are all very 20th century approaches to the economy, and frankly are not very different from one another at a strategic level. Where are the long-term strategies or plans that will support new knowledge-based industries?

The knowledge economy

Richard Florida, an urban economist at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, and Greg Spencer, a research associate, have pointed out in their article in the Globe and Mail that:

the real sources of sustained prosperity and rising living standards are knowledge, innovation and creativity. Canada has neglected the development of its knowledge-based economy….Cities are the central organizing unit on the knowledge economy, with knowledge and creativity concentrated in Canada’s largest city regions.’

Florida and Spencer then go on to define five key ‘pillars’ that are needed to build Canada’s knowledge economy:

  • increased urban density
  • a shift from investment in roads to an investment in transit and high-speed rail, to make communication quicker and easier
  • more compact and affordable housing in cities to encourage young knowledge-workers to come together
  • increasing the minimum wage and replacing low-wage service jobs with more creative approaches to service provision
  • increased taxing and spending powers to cities.

Noticeably they do not mention high quality post-secondary education.

Renewable energy

David Boyd, an environmental lawyer, in a separate article argues that Canada’s government to date has ignored the potential of renewable energy, focusing instead on trying to extract and move carbon-heavy oil, gas and coal, through pipelines and tankers. Instead, he argues, future economic growth will be driven by developments in renewable energy such as solar, wind and geo-thermal power. He argues that Canada has the potential to generate 100 per cent of its electricity from renewable sources within two decades.

Canada has an unenviable reputation as being a major emitter of greenhouse gases, particularly through its production of heavy crude and bitumen from the oil sands. It is increasingly clear that there will be an increasing charge on the production of such carbon, mainly through direct carbon taxes (as has been the case here in British Columbia for a number of years, with success in driving down carbon emissions) or indirect cap and trade schemes (which are coming in Ontario and Quebec). Even major investment funds are now looking at carbon-emitting industries as high risk investments for the future. As a result the Canadian oil industry must now find cleaner ways to extract and treat oil and petroleum.

Renewable and clean energy however depends on invention and innovation to develop economically efficient sources of energy. In other words, it needs a heavy investment in developing new knowledge that will drive the development of new, clean technologies.

The increasing demand for high level knowledge workers

Neither article in the Globe and Mail made the link to the need for high level knowledge workers to grow the knowledge economy. It is as if it is almost taken for granted that Canada’s universities and colleges will develop such workers. However, although Canadian institutions may train academic researchers, engineers, media designers and developers and entrepreneurial business people, they need to have the right skills to work effectively in a knowledge-based economy. We are talking about a highly competitive market here. All advanced developed countries want to be leaders in innovation. Will Canada produce the researchers, engineers and managers with the right skills for a knowledge-based economy? In particular will they develop people skilled in knowledge management, creativity, problem solving, design, entrepreneurialism, critical thinking, etc.?

Online learning and the knowledge economy

This is where online learning becomes critically important. In my online open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age, I focus specifically on the kind of skills that will be needed in a knowledge intensive economy, and demonstrate that online learning has a key role to play in developing such skills (although of course it is not the only way).

However, this is just one person’s contribution. Canada needs to focus much more on identifying the knowledge and skills that will be needed in knowledge intensive industries and ensure that our educational institutions know how to develop such skills. In particular are we using the appropriate teaching methods and technologies that will help learners develop these skills and knowledge?

Those countries that can harness new knowledge to clean and innovative industries will surely be the economic drivers of the future. I just wish that our political parties would pay more attention to developing strategies that support a knowledge-based economy, because the fate of Canada as a prosperous country with an enviable standard of living and quality of life absolutely depends on this.


Is there a future in online learning?

Listen with webReader
Is there a future for instructional designers?

Is there a future for instructional designers?

I hope all readers of this blog in the northern hemisphere had a good break and are looking forward to a new academic year. Your focus is going to be in getting down to work on reasonably well defined tasks, such as course design, or studying for a higher degree.

Building a career

Among you though will be a few who are wondering about your longer-term future. I am frequently asked for advice about ‘next career moves’ by people working in, or wanting to work in, the field of online learning. Here are some of the questions I get asked:

  • Where are the best jobs in online learning?
  • What qualifications do I need?
  • What should my next job be after this one?
  • My position has been terminated – what should I do next?
  • How do I move into a senior management position where I can make strategic decisions about learning technology?

The answer to these questions are usually very specific. They depend on a person’s personality, qualifications, and experience. But there are also some general issues regarding a career in online learning, educational technology or instructional design that are worth discussing and which may help people to make appropriate decisions about their future.

There is no (long-term) future in being an online learning specialist

This may come as a surprise, because online learning is booming, and there is currently great demand for people with experience in online learning. However, it is a mistake to think the future will be like the past or even the present. In particular, it would be a mistake to think that online learning will be some esoteric branch of teaching and learning requiring specialism. What is happening is that, while the proportion of online learning compared to face-to-face teaching is increasing, and will vary according to context, online learning is becoming increasingly an integral part of teaching and learning. Thus, in the future, online learning will not be a separate activity, but one component within a wide range of decisions about teaching and learning.

A second reason is only just surfacing, but we have seen in recent weeks concern being expressed about the decreasing amount of resources being spent on faculty and instructors, and in turn a greater proportion of expenditure going into ‘administration’. Part of this concern is due to the growth of specialty learning technology units, which are usually staffed mainly by non-academic categories of staff, such as managers/directors, instructional designers, web designers, media specialists, student advisors, etc. Some of these units have over 60 staff and a budget of more than $10 million a year.

This is part of a much larger problem, which is the relatively low number of tenured faculty who spend increasingly smaller amounts of time teaching, and their replacement by short-term, contract or adjunct instructors. Neither type of instructors are trained or qualified as ‘teachers’ but as subject experts, which in turn has resulted in more and more non-academic support staff being hired to support them as more and more teaching moves online.

However, the dynamic of post-secondary institutions is such that this direction could and probably will change dramatically. In the future, we will need instructors who have the skills to decide when and how to use online learning as part of their jobs, and not see online learning as a specialty of someone else.

We are still a long way from that, and over the next few years there will still be demand for specialists in online learning, and there will always be a need for a much smaller number of specialists doing research and development on new technologies, but these will be relatively few in numbers. More importantly it would be a mistake to think that you can in future build a lifelong career just specialising in online learning. It will be just one of several ways of delivering teaching.

The lack of a career path

Ah, you may say, but even if online learning becomes an integral part of regular teaching, will there not still be a need for instructional designers, educational technologists and media specialists? Probably, but given that they will need to be funded from within the overall academic budget for teaching and learning, there is likely to be continuous pressure, especially from faculty, to keep the numbers of such supporting staff down. In particular, there is unlikely to be a clear career path for such support staff.

I had an enormous battle at one university to get a reclassification of instructional designers. Instructional designers did not fit into any of the HR classification systems. I wanted them classified as academic staff – because most had Ph.D.s and all had master degrees – and I wanted a career structure, so that there was an entry level (apprentice), a career level (the majority) and at least one senior level position, so that there was a chance of promotion and some opportunity for training and mentoring less experienced staff. I did not succeed in shifting the HR system which was, as so often, rigid and unyielding to changing conditions. The instructional designers remained categorised as general administrative staff, even though they were critical to the institution’s long term teaching and learning strategy (and are now being lumped in with all the other administrative costs that faculty are complaining about).

Perhaps of even greater concern is that it is extremely difficult for an instructional designer to end up as a senior manager making decisions about long-term strategies for the use of learning technologies in an institution. These positions – associate vice-presidents or deans responsible for teaching and learning – almost always go to mainline academics who may have no knowledge or experience in the use of learning technologies. The likelihood therefore of someone who is a specialist in digital learning technologies ending up as a university or college president is remote, although there are one or two exceptions.

What to do, then?

For the next five to ten years, there should be plenty of jobs for highly skilled instructional designers, but sooner rather than later institutions will be forced to ensure that their instructors are trained and qualified to teach effectively with technology. It will be a core part of their work, and as a result the demand for specialist learning technology support will decrease. The main role then will be providing some of the initial training for post-secondary instructors.

People come to learning technologies through many routes. Some are teachers or instructors who have become interested in the the use of technology for teaching. Others are web designers or print editors who have drifted into education. Some are computer scientists who started as software developers. In the future though, most teachers and instructors will need to be experts in subject areas, pedagogy, and learning technologies. These will all be integral parts of their jobs. We need to train post-graduates from the start in these areas, and to provide a two or three year probation period where they are monitored and supervised by more experienced teachers and instructors.

When I was finishing my undergraduate degree, one of my professors asked me what I wanted to do after I graduated. ‘I want to do research in education’, I said, expecting him to be pleased that I was going to do a post-graduate degree. ‘You’d better get some experience then in teaching first’, he said. ‘Take a post-graduate certificate in education, and get three years teaching experience before even beginning to think of research.’ It was excellent advice. I would give the same advice to young students thinking of becoming learning technology specialists.

Get subject expertise and learn about pedagogy and learning technologies, then teach for a few years, then decide whether or not you want to specialise. For those already started on a learning technology or instructional design career, strengthen your subject matter expertise so you can move (back) into teaching if necessary, because that may well be the future.

Above all, stay flexible and continue to learn, adding new skills and knowledge as the field develops. Develop excellent inter-personal and communication skills; these will be as important in the future as subject expertise and specialist knowledge.

Over to you

Predicting the future is always hazardous. I could be totally wrong. So I would really like to hear from others as to what they think the future is for instructional designers, learning technology and online learning specialists. What advice would you give to someone starting out in these areas? Or to someone more experienced looking to their next steps in their career?


What is the role of Canadian universities in indigenous education?

Listen with webReader
First Nations University of Canada, Saskatchewan

First Nations University of Canada, Saskatchewan

Universities Canada (2015) Universities Canada principles on Indigenous education Ottawa: Universities Canada, June 29

Yesterday was Canada Day, and I am very proud to be Canadian. But Canada as a country has made an awful mess of its relationship with its aboriginal peoples, as the recent devastating report by the national Truth and Reconciliation Commission has made abundantly clear. The big question is where Canada goes from here, not just in making restitution for past mistreatment, but more importantly in ensuring that aboriginal people can develop in ways that benefit both them and the country as a whole.

The education of aboriginal people is a key but difficult issue, as it is not just about making sure that aboriginal people have the same educational opportunities as other Canadians, but that their education reflects aboriginal values and needs. In recent years, there has been very important progress in developing aboriginal lawyers (especially important, given the many outstanding land claims and resource development) and aboriginal doctors and health workers, but I have not seen the same progress being made in aboriginal education. In particular, aboriginal education, which constitutionally is a Federal responsibility, is poorly funded, and more importantly, badly managed, partly because education is a provincial responsibility for everyone else, and partly because the Federal government oscillates between ham-fisted intervention and neglect.

I was somewhat heartened then to see that Universities Canada, in response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report, has issued a set of 13 principles of indigenous education. However, on closer examination, I find this yet another example of a well-meaning but ineffective response to a national disgrace. There is nothing to disagree with in respect of the 13 principles, but the document goes nowhere near to the heart of the problem.

In Canada, less than 10 percent of indigenous people in Canada have a university degree, compared to 28 percent of non-Aboriginals, but the main challenge of indigenous education is the very low numbers successfully completing high school, which results in far fewer aboriginal students qualifying for university or, more importantly, for vocational and technical education. Canada spends far less per child on aboriginal education than it does for non-aboriginal children.

Thus there are two things I would like to have seen from Universities Canada:

  • a clear statement of the reasons why there are fewer aboriginal students in universities, and what needs to be done to bring the numbers up, including more money being spent on aboriginal k-12 education and reforms to the management of aboriginal k-12 education. Without such steps, aboriginal people in Canada will continue to miss out on higher education;
  • a plan of action to improve aboriginal post-secondary education, involving a partnership between the universities and aboriginal people, in the form perhaps of a high level task force, with a defined period in which to report, and with a mandate to propose a budgeted program of actions for provincial, federal and aboriginal governments, as well as recommendations for the universities themselves.

Until then, the 13 principles will remain a pious but ineffective response. In the meantime, would it be too much to ask the main political parties in Canada, in the run-up to the election in October, what their policies and actions will be to improve aboriginal education? (Please feel free to use this space.)

Advice to the Alberta government on Athabasca University’s sustainability report

Listen with webReader

AU sustainability report 2

McKinnon, P. at al. (2015) The Future is Now: Report of the Presidential Task Force on Sustainability Athabasca AB: Athabasca University

The university kindly provided me with a pdf copy of the report, and an online version of the full report is available by clicking on the title above (thanks, Colin Madland). (For shorthand, AU in this post refers to Athabasca University, NOT the University of Alberta).

So I have now read the report in full. I have had some lengthy comments from several AU faculty about the report and my previous blog post, and have had a chance also to read some of the press comment. I have also had a very challenging e-mail from a student, wanting to know whether they should still be considering Athabasca University as part of their learning plans. I will deal with this question in a separate post. Here I want to focus on the report itself.

Who is the report for and what is it trying to achieve?

I think I would need to be a fly on the wall during the AU’s Board meetings to really answer those questions with authority, but it is a critical question, since there are so many stakeholders involved (Government, Board, faculty, staff, students, local politicians and the local communities that support and are supported by the university). However, the report itself offers this:

the task force was directed to report on options to the Government of Alberta and the university community…

However, considering that the university’s Board and administration has been struggling with the issue of funding and sustainability for some time, and has responsibility and at least some control over internal matters, the real target of this report is most likely the provincial government, and the main goal is to get more operating funding from the government. If it is not the main goal, that is what it should be.

However, another interpretation could be that the university administration has been unsuccessful in its attempts to change the culture of the university, negotiate sensible collective agreements, or get more money from government, so it is trying to scare the bejeezus out of its faculty and staff into believing that unless they change, the end is nigh.

Of course, both of these motivations for the report could be possible.

What does the report actually say?

The basic message is that the university will go bust in two years time, and to avoid that possibility it suggests four possible strategies:

  • drop out-of-province students and focus only on Albertans
  • become more efficient and effective
  • federation with another Alberta institution
  • join with other open institutions across Canada and beyond, within a national strategy of open and distance learning.

See my earlier post for more on this.

What do I agree with in the report?

Although the case that the university is financially unsustainable is not actually made in the report, I think most people other than really entrenched faculty recognise that the university cannot continue as it has been doing over the past few years. It almost certainly needs more money from the provincial government, just to serve the citizens of Alberta, never mind the majority of its students that come from across Canada. It also needs to make some fundamental changes internally to ensure that it is fit for teaching in a digital age, which will need substantial capital investment and cultural change from within.

The report also makes another important point:

What is lacking in both a provincial and national context is a substantive and strategic framework that advances Alberta’s and Canada’s place in online learning and Athabasca University’s place within it.

Also, reading some of the media coverage of the report, it is clear that many associated with the university are in a deep state of denial about the seriousness of the situation at AU. I think the Board and the university leadership are right to indicate that the university is facing an existential crisis, although mainly for reasons that are not addressed in the report (see below).

What is wrong with the report

I hardly know where to begin, but let’s start with the obvious:

1. A lack of vision for the future

There may be a lack of a provincial or national strategy for online or open learning, but successful institutions create their own future, and on the way, change the environment around them. What is really lacking from this report is a clear vision of what AU wants to be in the future, and how that vision would fit with the rest of the Albertan (and national and international) online and open education world.

There is nothing in this report on sustainability beyond the usual platitudes about widening access that suggests why the university is worth sustaining. In particular what is the added value that AU can or should be offering to the Alberta post-secondary system? There are good answers to these questions but they do not seem to be coming from the university management. Yet this is critical for the long-term sustainability of the university.

The reason for this appears to me to be that no-one in the senior administration really understands what business it is in. This is not, nor should it be, a conventional university. It should be addressing issues of access (particularly for aboriginals, lifelong learners and immigrants in Alberta), being an innovator in teaching and learning, and setting standards for quality delivery of online, open and distance education. It should be negotiating its role viz-viz what the conventional institutions are planning for online and open education, and what it will do and what they will do. Where is the vision, and the strategy for implementing the vision?

2. A viable financial plan

I find it almost incredible that if the main goal is to get more money from government, the report does not offer a detailed analysis of what the problem is, financially, and how it could be solved, in terms of operating and capital dollars. The only specific ask is for $38 million for investment in IT infrastructure. No doubt there are other documents that have gone to government with this information, but surely a summary of the actual financial data that shows why there is a financial crisis looming is needed, if only to convince or persuade the university community.

Even given the dire state of government finances in Alberta at the moment, its operational funding problem is probably easily fixable in terms of the total size of the Alberta budget, if the government can be persuaded that the university offers a valuable service. You have to wonder why AU needs so much capital investment in IT in an age of cloud computing. Too often large IT funding requests are a way to buy oneself out of bad IT management and strategies, but it may be a realistic request for all I know, and resolvable through a thorough external review.

What the report does not discuss, though, for obvious reasons, is that the university has been really badly managed over the last seven years or so (for just one example, see What’s going on at Athabasca University?), so the issue is more one of a lack of trust and confidence in the university, leading to government officials being extremely wary of throwing good money after bad. The report of course does nothing to address this key issue, instead blaming the location of the institution, bad collective agreements, and the lack of love from the provincial government. Without a serious financial plan for the future, linked to a strong vision, and better management and governance, that love is likely to continue to be lacking.

3. The proposed solutions do not solve AU’s problems

The four options are no more than window-dressing or lipstick on a pig. None of them will work without more money, at least initially. Let’s look at each one:

  • serve only Albertans: I don’t see how losing 70 per cent of your clients can help financially, unless the School of Business at AU has a revolutionary new theory of return on investment. Online and open universities have high fixed costs and low marginal costs (or should have), so they should be able to offer courses to clients outside the province at relatively low cost. The government may rightly cap tuition fees for Albertan students, but why not charge cost plus for out-of-province students? Again, where’s the business plan for AU’s future?
  • become more efficient and effective: well, why hasn’t it done that already? This sounds like every business mantra, but really reducing costs without changing your core business activities is a recipe for disaster. AU needs to move to a more effective, lighter online teaching model, but that will need more investment initially (and lower operating costs per student later), and yes, probably a change in collective agreements and will result in some redundant staff. The university should have done this years ago and now has a lot of catching up to do. Without a plan for what this new model will look like and the actual costs, though, why would government give it this extra investment, and why would the unions agree to any changes?
  • federation with another Alberta institution: how will this lead to cost savings – where’s the plan? Who would want an outdated model of distance course delivery? The only arrangement that would really save money would be to close AU, but make sure the valuable staff who have experience and knowledge of modern online teaching and open education are absorbed by the other Albertan institutions. More likely, though. all that knowledge and experience would go outside the province, so everyone would lose.
  • a multi-institutional, national federation: well, we already have one, it’s called the Canadian Virtual University, and for all its good intentions, it is relatively ineffective, because Canadian provinces don’t work collaboratively in higher education (e.g. credit transfer), and there is no national HE policy for constitutional reasons.

So what is the solution to AU’s woes?

Not my job, really, to answer this question, but here’s my two cents worth (and no, I’m retired, so don’t ask me to to do the work needed):

1. Canada needs a high-level, effective, world-leading open university/college. Despite huge increases in the capacity of conventional universities, and the adoption of online learning in conventional universities, there are still major gaps in accessibility, and lack of opportunities for online learning, especially in Alberta.

2. AU needs to develop a strong vision and strategy that identifies those gaps in access, and how it will meet them, and clarify its role viz-a-viz other Albertan universities and colleges in providing online programs.

3. AU needs a new teaching and learning plan that takes account of recent developments in teaching methods and online technologies.

4. AU needs to develop a realistic long-term business plan that will support this vision and its teaching and learning plan that it can sell to the government.

5. It is clear from the last seven years and now this report that the current Board and senior administration at AU are not up to the tasks outlined above, so the provincial government should appoint a new Board, and a new President for a minimum five year term, who has knowledge and understanding of open, online and distance learning (you don’t appoint a sea captain to fly a commercial airliner). This is urgent and needs to be done in the next few months or so. The new President should be free to put in place a senior management team of his or her choice.

6. Until a new Board and President is in place, the provincial government should maintain its current level of funding for AU, and guarantee Albertans who commence an AU degree or qualification that they will be supported in their online studies, whatever happens (i.e. if it eventually decides to close AU, the credits and programs will be transferred to a provincially recognised Albertan institution). It should then review AU’s funding within 12 months of the appointment of the President and Board, when it has received AU’s vision and business plan for the future.

I will write a separate post on advice to students considering applying to AU.