Mid-career retraining is seen as one possible focus for Athabasca University’s future

Coates, K. (2017) Independent Third-Party Review of Athabasca University Saskatoon, SK

This report, 45 pages in length plus extensive appendices, was jointly commissioned by the Government of Alberta and the Governors of Athabasca University.

Why the report?

Because Athabasca University, established in 1971 as a fully distance, open university, has been in serious trouble over the last 10 years. In 2015, its Acting President issued a report saying that ‘Athabasca University (AU) will be unable to pay its debt in two years if immediate action is not taken.’ It needed an additional $25 million just to solve its IT problems. Two years earlier, the AU’s senior administrators were savagely grilled by provincial legislators about the financial management of the university, to such an extent that it seemed that the Government of Alberta might well pull the plug on the university.

However, comes a recent provincial election, comes a radical change of government, leading to a new Board and a new President with a five year term. Although these are essential changes for establishing a secure future of the university, in themselves they are not sufficient. The financial situation of the university is temporarily more secure, but the underlying problem of expenses not being matched by revenue remains. It desperately needs more money from a government that is short of revenues since the oil industry tanked. Also its enrolments have started to drop, due to competition from campus-based universities now offering fully online programs. Lastly it still has the same structural problems with an outdated course design and development model and poor student support services, especially on the academic side.

So although the newish government was willing to suspend judgement, it really needed an independent review before shovelling any new money AU’s way – hence this report.

What does the report say?

I will try to summarise briefly the main findings and recommendations, but as always, it is worth reading the full report, which is relatively concise and easy to read:

  • there is substantial student demand in Alberta, across Canada and internationally for AU’s programs, courses and services;
  • the current business model is not financially sustainable and will not support the institution in the coming decades – but ‘it has the potential if significant changes are made to its structure, approach and program mix, to be a viable, sustainable and highly relevant part of the Alberta post-secondary system’;
  • more money is needed to support its operations, especially if it is to remain headquartered in the (small and somewhat remote) Town of Athabasca; the present government funding arrangement is inadequate for the university’s mix of programs and students, especially regarding the support needed for disadvantaged students and those requiring more flexibility in delivery;
  • the emergence of dozens of credible online university alternatives has undermined AU’s competitive advantage – it no longer has a clear and obvious role within the Provincial post-secondary system;
  • AU should re-brand itself as the leading Canadian centre for online learning and 21st century educational technology, but although it has the educational technology professionals needed to provide leadership, it lacks the ICT model and facilities to rise to this opportunity;
  • Open access: AU should expand its activities associated with population groups that are under-represented in the Alberta and Canadian post-secondary system: women in STEM subject, new Canadians, Indigenous Peoples and students with disabilities;
  • diversification of the student body is necessary to achieve economies of scale; in other words it should expand its reach across Canada and internationally and not limit itself just to Alberta;
  • AU should expand its efforts to educate lifelong learners and should expand its career-focused and advanced educational opportunities – particularly mid-career training and training for new work;
  • although there is overwhelming faculty and staff support for AU’s mandate and general approach, there are considerable institutional and financial barriers to effecting a substantial reorientation in AU operations; however, such a re-orientation is critical for its survival.

My comments

Overall, this is an excellent report. Wisely, it does not dwell on the historical reasons why Athabasca University got itself into its current mess but instead focuses on what its future role should be, what it can uniquely contribute to the province, and what is needed to right the ship, including more money.

However, the main challenges, in my view, remain more internal than external. The Board of Governors, senior administration, faculty, staff and students still need to develop together a clear and shared vision for the future of the institution that presents a strong enough value proposition to the government to justify the increased operational and investment funding that is needed. Although the external reviewer does a good job suggesting what some of the elements of such a vision might be, it has to come from the university community itself. This is long overdue and cannot be delayed much longer otherwise the government’s patience will understandably run out. Money itself is not the issue – it is the value proposition that will persuade the government to prioritise funding for AU that still needs to be made by the university itself. In other words it’s a trust issue – if we give you more money, what will you deliver?

The second major challenge, while strongly linked to vision and funding, is the institutional culture. Major changes in course design, educational technology, student support and administration, marketing and PR are urgently needed to bring AU into advanced 21st century practice in online and distance learning. I fear that while there are visionary faculty and staff at AU who understand this, there is still too much resistance from traditionalists and those who see change as undermining academic excellence or threatening their comfort zone. Without these necessary structural and cultural changes though AU will not be able to implement its vision, no matter how persuasive it is. So there is also a competency issue – if we give you more money, can you deliver on your promises?

I think these are still open questions but at least the external review offers a vote of confidence in the university. Now it is up to the university community to turn this opportunity into something more concrete. But it needs to move fast. The window of opportunity is closing fast.


  1. Tony,
    Rather than spending time on once again developing a “vision” and “value proposition”, how about we at Athabasca U. start by addressing the problems and supporting innovative learning approaches.through actual implementations. I agree that money is not the issue, but a value proposition is meaningless without corresponding concrete actions. How about doing something and thus showing the government that we are capable of doing more than develop vision statements and value propositions? The one aspect of institutional culture that needs to be changed is the propensity to “discuss” things to death with no resolution and no one accountable for actually implementing directives that have been agreed upon. How about we deliver on some promises and let this prove to government that we are worth funding.
    All the best.

    • I can’t argue with your suggestion, Rory – vision and planning is ongoing and action is needed now. Lots of steps can be taken immediately by motivated faculty and staff.

      However, I think the government needs to see where Athabasca now best fits within the Alberta post-secondary system and what it can deliver that the other institutions can’t – or can’t deliver as well as Athabasca. I still haven’t seen anything from the university (other than the third party review) that indicates the direction the university intends to go in the future. Otherwise, actions are unco-ordinated and not prioritised.

      Also without more government money many of the issues can’t be addressed – especially on the IT side/learning technologies side – thus constraining possible innovative activity.

      I still think Athabasca needs to win the ‘hearts and minds’ side of the argument with the government in order to have the capacity to change. The third party review is a step in this direction but not sufficient, at least in my view, 1,286 kilometres away.

  2. Good arguments on both sides gentlemen. All of the above noted recommendations are required by all universities, not just AU. I just got my M.Ed. from AU because, for me, it promoted itself as the go to uni for online learning, which is where I feel the future is. I turned down UBC’s program because AU came across as a much more focused uni in that field. And, I was right. I work at UFV trying hard to get faculty to meet the online standards AU has.

    I do feel the report mentioned is very accurate and most faculty I had met weren’t too proficient with technology, but that is not the uni.

    BTW, your course Rory had plenty of technology thrown in but not too much to overtax the noodle, which is why it was one of my most enjoyable.

    • Tel,

      I have an online B.Admin (Mgmt) and was hired by AU in 2014 to a mid-level position. They are respective of online learning, fully embrace it as a source of quality education, and obviously recognize it is the way of the future. I would posit, based on your ending statement, that you may have been screened out due to an attitude that showed through either in a cover letter, or in-person at an interview.

  3. Excellent analysis as ever, Tony!

    A direction would be a fine thing and, yes, action is needed now (actually about 10 years ago). But we do need to be rather careful about which way we go: the Coates report wisely leaves a fair number of details quite open. I agree that we are in desperate need of a massive increase in investment in IT (and much else besides) but there’s a big risk that it could have the opposite effect to the one intended if the wrong IT is chosen. I am a little fearful because the timelines on this are almost purpose-built to ensure hasty decision-making, and the loudest advice from within may do us further harm. Our IT decisions in the past few years have been major contributors to the problems we face now, with way too much outsourcing of the wrong things, way too little thought given to the whole, way too little consideration of long-term evolution, way too little understanding of either distance or learning. And it’s not just our IT leaders. There are too many at AU – albeit none that could be described as visionary or experts in the field – who would like to double down on the call centre, for instance. Even among the great and visionary there are prophets of personalization who, if they had their way, could inadvertently cement our dead-end pedagogies still further by reinforcing a contestable definition of ‘success’ and encoding the unfortunate power structures of our transmission model of teaching into the fabric of the system. Not all of our pedagogies are dead-end, I hasten to add! But there are too many courses that have not yet evolved out of the postal era, that wrap a study guide and set of assessed exercises around a textbook with an exam tacked onto the end, and call it teaching. There’s a place for that, just not a very big one. In fact, there’s a place for many things, including personalization and, yes, even a call centre (if done right) – most one-size-fits-all solutions are not a great idea, even my own. I am much in favour of a design that lets many flowers grow and, above all, to cross-pollinate, which implies a very substantial set of interlinked changes to our IT, our organizational structure, and (hence) to our culture. We are at an incredibly important fork in the road and the future could be incredibly bright, but there are plenty of dangerous roads to avoid.

    Some further thoughts at https://landing.athabascau.ca/blog/view/2559488/athabascas-bright-future


    ps @Tel – no, and it never has, at least not in my 10 years at the institution. We do plenty of dogfooding! A good percentage of our profs have online credentials, right up to doctorates, and many professional and admin staff have them too. In fact, it is usually thought to be a very good thing because it implies experience of online learning that we value quite a bit. Of course, not *all* online credentials are worth the bits they are made of, but all credentials are judged on their own merits, not on how people learned the skills they represent. Any such discrimination would be strongly censured if it occurred.

    • Thanks, Jon – anyone interested in AU’s future should read Jon’s blog on this topic.
      IT can be incredibly valuable but far too often it develops a life of its own that is not geared to the services or functions it is supposed to support – see for instance the federal government’s Phoenix project. And how many universities went bankrupt in the 1990s because of Peoplesoft administrative systems software that just did not fit he purpose of a university? Hospitals also often suffer the same fate.
      Unfortunately a university such as AU cannot afford to get its IT solutions wrong. Putting it right is not just a question of money – although lots will be needed – but of matching IT to its future, not its past, needs.

  4. Thanks Jon and Tony. Interested to hear your thoughts on the following.

    With respect to IT, it is important to recognize that effective IT solutions require effective IT governance and IT governance at AU has undergone drama changes in the last 3 years as a result of the change in legislative governance of AU (AU move to the PS Learning Act). Prior to the change, IT was governed by 3 committees (Learning and Research, Administration, Systems) each chaired by the CIO/VPIT, committees that reported to Academic Council, a committee roughly equivalent in power and stature to the General Faculties Council (GFC) of today. Back then, the responsiveness of IT and academic mission was much closer and it is why AU became burdened with a number of important and sometimes disconnected online initiatives.

    Today, the governance of IT is managed outside of governance committees mandated by PSLA. IT has a separate governance structure that is largely disconnected from the standing committees of GFC, with the exception of the Academic Learning Environment Committee where there is some token IT governance representation. However the ultimate decision making on IT priorities is done by an IT governance Investment committee which somehow managed to NOT rank LMS currency as a number #1 priority.

    IMO, IT governance at AU is problematic and less connected to the academic mission of AU than it was in the past. Effective IT solutions require effective IT governance. IT cannot be separated. IT has to be integrated with academic governance at all levels (learning, admin, systems). The Coates report shone a light on a number of important issues but I think he missed IT governance.

    • Thanks, Bob.

      I cannot comment on the Alberta PS Learning Act and how that has influenced IT governance at AU. However, I completely agree in principle that IT governance is a critical issue in any university, but especially in one that needs to be fully online.

      In our book ‘Managing Technology in Higher Education (2011), Alberta Sangra and I noted that in our 11 institutional case studies, IT resources and priorities tended to focus first on IT infrastructure (telecommunications, servers/storage, and bandwidth), then administrative issues (financial systems, payrolls, student registration and records), and, lastly, when it could be fitted in, academic priorities (supporting teaching).

      That may make sense when technology was peripheral for teaching, but when IT becomes critical to the institution’s mission – as it is at AU – then teaching needs should really take priority. All IT decisions should be driven by the need to deliver academic programs effectively, and all the other IT uses should be designed to serve that core mission. It sounds though as if the cart has been driving the horse at AU, although I appreciate the difficulty in unwinding inappropriate legacy systems. An appropriate IT governance is even more necessary in such a context.

      Incidentally, Chapter 9 of our book does discuss IT governance in detail, with a suggested governance model in Figure 9.1 (p.215). To quote: (p.216):

      ‘The rationale behind the model is that expertise in technology and its applications are spread throughout the organization. A good governance structure ensures that all key stakeholders are engaged in decision-making at the right time and at the right level.’

      It might be an appropriate time for AU to try to flesh out such a model.

  5. I am in the process of planning a return to academic studies after a 20+ career in IT. i have considered Athabasca U as one of many choices currently available to me. Based on the thread of discussion above and countless other dialogues about the poor quality of education at Athabasca, I cannot escape the conclusion that I would have to be a fool to choose this institution. Why on earth would a potential student commit 10’s of thousands of dollars and years of study towards a program that is highly likely to be of limited value now and in the years come? I really don’t see how Athabasca can possibly recover from its current state. Perhaps its time to close the doors and for everyone involved to cut their losses and move on.

  6. I second with the above comment. I am hoping to peruse my undergraduate in Nursing. This program allows up to 7 years to complete part time.

    Where else can I find out about the sustainability in this university?


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here