Athabasca University: a campus without students - or even resident faculty
Athabasca University: a campus without students – or even resident faculty

Bako, O. (2015) AU taskforce releases sustainability report, The Athabasca Advocate, June 9

I hate to rely on third-party reports, but a thorough web search did not find the actual sustainability report online, so all I can do is provide a summary of the newspaper article. (How comes an open university doesn’t make this most important report ever on its future available online? This is just another indicator of the depth of the problems at AU. It doesn’t understand the present, never mind the future). If anyone can supply me with a copy of the actual report, I would appreciate it. So until I get a copy, please see this as an interim post.

What’s the problem?

However you look at it, though, Canada’s largest open university is in an existential crisis:

Athabasca University (AU) will be unable to pay its debt in two years if immediate action is not taken, according to a sustainability report released June 1….the taskforce concluded AU would face insolvency on its debt in two years….’Our problem is a common one — our expenses are going up faster than our revenues,’ said AU interim president Peter MacKinnon.

So Athabasca University is now in the same position as the Greek government, except it doesn’t have the EU, the IMF, or the Germans to look to for help – just the Alberta government, which itself has been fiscally devastated by the collapse of oil prices.

What’s it doing about it?

From the newspaper report, though, the task force is looking forward, rather than backwards. It has looked at four options, which are not mutually exclusive:

  • increase cost-effectiveness and streamline business, administrative and education practices;
  • refocus AU’s mission to serve only, or primarily, students who physically reside in Alberta;
  • become a federation with another Alberta post-secondary institution and/or
  • join an affiliation with universities both in and out of the province (e.g. the Canadian Virtual University).

(I probably have mixed up the options, but you can see what kind of options are being considered).

Why is it in such a mess?

I’m not sure I’m the right person to answer this question, nor the newspaper, but the interim President seems to offer up some culprits:

  • increased reliance on tuition and decreased government funding to cover operating expenses,
  • caps on tuition that limit AU revenue,
  • the location of AU (its main campus is in the boondocks 200 kilometres north of Edmonton and most of the faculty live elsewhere),
  • demands from employee collective agreements,
  • the province does not see IT infrastructure as a capital expense.

However, none (except possibly the over-generous and/or inflexible collective agreements) of these really gets to the root of the problem. There are three fundamental reasons for AU’s problems, all strongly interconnected:

  • gross financial and political mismanagement by the previous university administration (Board and President);
  • a failure by the previous Alberta government to understand or support a unique institution;
  • a failure to adapt fast enough from a heavily front-end loaded, print-based teaching model to lighter, more flexible online teaching methods.

What will happen to AU?

God knows, and certainly not someone sitting here in Vancouver. However, I have the heavy foreboding of a tragedy rapidly unfolding. Here’s why:

  • doing the same as it has been, but more ‘efficiently’, i.e. more cheaply, won’t cut it. The only way to really reduce costs within the current teaching model is to cut student support and central faculty, which will mean lower completion rates and/or poorer quality courses; it needs to implement a completely different model of teaching and learning, which would reduce operating costs, but would also require major capital investment, and ripping up current collective agreements, neither of which appear to be options;
  • its current model has high fixed costs and low marginal costs; limiting enrolment to Albertans will leave the high fixed costs, but will reduce the additional income from external students, a recipe for disaster. Indeed, AU should go in the opposite direction and go global – but it will need a more up-to-date teaching model to do this;
  • I find it hard to believe that the Albert government doesn’t understand that investment in IT infrastructure is essential for a modern university, and is far cheaper than building new campuses. More likely it is hesitant to throw good money after bad, because AU has previously poorly managed the management of IT.

One tempting solution would be to close Athabasca, and give the two main universities a mandate to absorb and redevelop the programs Athabasca has been offering, using some of the money that is currently being invested in Athabasca. However, there are two problems with this temptation:

  • first, Alberta’s problem, compared to other provinces, is that it has in the past left online and distance learning to Athabasca University. As a result, its other institutions, such as the University of Alberta and the University of Calgary, are way behind many other universities in Canada in moving to online and blended learning. They therefore lack current capacity. On the other hand, it could be argued that by hiring the best from Athabasca, this would be a good way to bring Alberta’s conventional universities up to speed in online learning. My guess though is that neither the University of Alberta nor Calgary would see this as a priority or even necessary. Alberta is not the only province with a degree of hubris.
  • Second, Athabasca is not really an online university, it is an open university, and in that sense it is unique. The British Columbia government’s experience in closing the Open Learning Agency and with it the Open University of BC in 2003 suggests that it will be very difficult to integrate the open components within a conventional university, as the experience at Thompson Rivers University, which now offers open courses through its Open Learning division, indicates.

What would I propose?

Thank goodness, it’s not my responsibility, and I don’t have all the facts and information needed to make an informed decision. But here are some suggestions:

  • this is really the Alberta government’s decision. It surely now has enough evidence to know that the current situation cannot continue and that there is no easy solution short of closing down Athabasca, which then opens up a whole new can of worms
  • what Alberta lacks (and it is not alone in this) is a provincial wide strategy for online and open learning. There is clearly demand, in terms of student numbers, and opportunities, in terms of online, blended learning, OERs and open access. What is the best way to provide this, in terms of the roles of the conventional institutions, and where does Athabasca then fit, if at all? Until it has worked out such a strategy, it should hold off on any interim decisions about Athabasca, other than to keep it on life support.

However, don’t bank on logic or strategic thinking to drive decision-making about Athabasca University. There are jobs in rural areas at stake, as well as the future of many dedicated and skilled faculty and staff at Athabasca University. But this is where Alberta’s real resources lie, in the skills and knowledge buried within Athabasca University, not in a particular institutional arrangement. So the government needs to act with caution but the goal should be making Alberta a leader in online and open education, by drawing on and possibly relocating the expertise within Athabasca, but not necessarily supporting the institution itself whose time may well have passed.



  1. Careful what spin you put on things Tony – credibility at stake here. And careful who you listen to! Each post-secondary institution in Alberta would have stories of financial strife to tell under the former PC government. Truth is Athabasca U is still growing by 2-3%, just implemented a new student management and finance system and have recently signed cross-institutional program agreements. The sustainability report was crafted by an interim senior leader with no understanding of higher education innovation. In spite of hearing many excellent suggestions for continuing to increase access to and improve quality of education, he/she chose to suggest otherwise as a future for AU. There is much still happening at AU, including a successful $30M fundraising campaign.


  2. Shawn Read wrote:
    “In an era of students seeking more and more flexibility in education it is alarming to see Athabasca in this situation. If we truly believe that education is a priority then governments must invest adequate financial resources, upper administration must be held accountable for their poor leadership, and faculty need to be more open and part of the solution. I hope Athabasca can turn the ship in the right direction. “

  3. Judith Murray wrote:
    “This is very sad. Athabasca was a great university. It is one of the few stand-alone open universities in the world. It was an innovator and a disrupter of higher education before disruption became the buzz word of the day. Athabasca appears to have forgotten its mission and lost its way. Hopefully it can get itself back on track before it is too late.”

  4. As a current student of AU in a post diploma program, I can honestly say I am hustling courses at a record pace to ensure my degree is finished before the great collapse. God forbid it actually happens, but it bothers me to see it as a possibility.

    Online education has allowed me to;

    -maintain a personal business + continue cattle ranching
    -expand my opportunities if I wish to further educate in the future
    -save money and fuel (and the environment) on transportation as my classroom is inside of a 15.6 monitor
    -Work at my own pace, and rely upon myself
    -Earn a degree without loss of income, at a substantially lower cost than U of C/ U of A

    Obviously the last point is a minor echo of the first, but I cannot stress the luxury of earning a degree debt free and being able to compete academically with peers who went to brick and mortar institutions. Although I went to a college for a diploma, the rinse repeat methodology of reading a chapter, being quizzed on it, and a final term paper was ubiquitous. The sheer amount of time I save not commuting allows me to make up for this and complete coursework much more efficiently, and without a loan that would further burden the economy.

    Do I think online education is the solution? Partially prefaced, yes. I would note that it’s definitely not as fun as when I was in college, or as engaging. To be fair, my grades are substantially better than they were in college and my focus is much sharper. This discipline has been a welcome addition in my life. I met many other post diploma students that had dropped AU courses because they were “not fun” or “really difficult”. In essence I think what a lot of people had forgotten is that there is an end destination in mind, and not necessarily an easy ride to take.

    The author briefly touches on multiple points that resonate heavily with me; the technology aspect is severely lacking. Although the principles in the courses are fairly universal, the execution can be weak at times. Would it have killed somebody to make the odd audio recording, or textbooks in .epub format to save money and paper? Such mild technological advances would cost money but save money in the long run, and would further improve the university’s image as a future and frontier university, instead of utilizing powerpoint notes from 2003.

    I hope AU does not perish, but it looks likely. In any case, I am proud to be a part of the experience, and will always speak highly of them. it’s not a perfect situation, but it lays a foundation for what on-line education really could become.


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