The Canadian Press (2022) Get back to work: Alberta government threatens funding cuts to Athabasca University CTV News Edmonton
The provincial government of Alberta has told Athabasca University (self-styled as Canada’s Open University) that it ‘must end its pursuit of the near-virtual strategy and must deliver a new strategic plan to Advanced Education for approval by Sept. 30. Failure to do so would allow the Ministry of Advanced Education to withhold the $3.43-million monthly instalment for Athabasca University’s base operating grant.’
This is a story that has been in the works for a very long time – 38 years in fact. Athabasca University’s headquarters were relocated in 1984 from Edmonton to the small town of Athabasca, which is just under a two-hour drive from Edmonton. The reason at the time: the MLA for the constituency of Athabasca was a member of the provincial government. The local pulp mill had closed and he needed to find some work for the town of approximately 3,000 residents.
The problem for the town
Athabasca University is by far the largest employer in the town, with a total of about 1,200 staff. However, many of the academic staff continue to be located in Edmonton or elsewhere, working remotely long before the Covid-19 pandemic, when, as with most other universities during the pandemic, nearly all staff were forced to work remotely.
Athabasca University’s President Peter Scott (formerly of the UK Open University) has wanted more freedom for its staff to continue to work remotely following the pandemic but this has received tremendous kick-back from the town of Athabasca. Without a substantial physical presence of the university’s staff in the town, the town really has little economic future. Also, what’s the point of calling it Athabasca University if it’s just a mailbox address?
The problem for the university
The problem from the university’s point of view is the difficulty of attracting world class staff if they are forced to live in a very small, remote town with few amenities. For a start, where would all 1,200 staff live in a town of 3,000 (currently there are 58 vacancies for rent or purchase in the whole area). For many years after the move from Edmonton to Athabasca, there was a regular daily bus service for employees to and from Athabasca. One senior academic has spent most of his time at Athabasca living on a houseboat in False Creek in Vancouver. For most staff, there is no valid reason for them to work on campus. They can do their work just as well online, including meetings. In particular, given the current labour shortage in Canada, many employers are realising that to attract and even more importantly to retain well qualified staff, they need to be more flexible about working arrangements, particularly if flexible work arrangements lead to greater productivity. The Alberta government (not for the first time) seems to be going backwards rather than forwards in terms of the general trend.
The Alberta government’s decision raises the question: what is the main purpose of a university? Is it mainly to provide jobs for local people, or is it to serve students (in Athabasca’s case, from across Canada). The government here is clearly saying: it must do both. Since the government is the main financial contributor to Athabasca University, it still has considerable clout.
Is there a good solution?
I must confess to mixed feelings about this issue. Working remotely is yet another privilege for academics, who generally get a good salary, pensions and working conditions. Many people around the world would jump at the chance of living and working in a small Canadian community with a regular salary and good working conditions. Universities can and should be economic drivers for their communities. On the other hand, they need to compete internationally for good staff, or their reputation will slowly sink and they will die.
What’s needed here (and this is in short supply in Alberta politics these days) is a little common sense and compromise. Require at least the President, Provost and other top executives and their immediate support staff to live in Athabasca. Require government officials to hold meetings with the university in Athabasca, rather than in Edmonton, so that their expenses for meals and accommodation go into the businesses in Athabasca. Require most staff to come in at least once a month for meetings (it will be good for building trust), and all campus maintenance staff to live locally. Set up a fund to support the development of local spin-off companies from the university’s research, and direct the research to support local issues, such as mitigating climate change. This may still not be sufficient to enable the town of Athabasca to survive, but a university cannot and should not do all the heavy lifting of economically supporting a town on its own.
A personal perspective
When my wife and I were desperate to find a way to emigrate to Canada in the 1980’s I went for an interview for a senior academic position at Athabasca University. After spending most of a day with the President and Chair of the Board of governors, I turned the job down.
My wife was furious – she was more than willing to move to a small town in Canada if that was the price of emigration. However, that wasn’t the reason I turned down the job. It was quite clear that I could not work with the then President and was appalled by the politics and arrogance of the Chair of the Board (who of course was a political appointment). It was a good decision on my part. Glen Farrell later enabled me to move to the Open Learning Agency in Vancouver, which was less like the wild west than Alberta.
Things change of course. I was later proud to be offered an honorary degree by Athabasca University, and it is still one of the very few universities in Canada where you can do a whole bachelor’s degree at a distance in many subjects. Alberta should be proud of its unique university, not making life difficult for it, as it has so often done. But the university may need to compromise too, otherwise it could be looking for a new President soon.
The poetry of Athabasca University
In the meantime, here is a lovely little ditty from 1984 from Ross Paul, Vice-President Academic at Athabasca University (1980-91), which seems particularly appropriate today:
They looked into St. Albert and north to Chipewyan.
They even tried Regina but that’s in Saskatchewan.
They looked at Drayton Valley and even Stony Plain,
But every time they thought of it, they came back to the name.
CHORUS: Oh, AthaAthabasca is the place that we should go
AthaAthabasca, where winds of change do blow.
In the town of Athabasca, they really know the score.
AthaAthabasca, we’ll go in ’84.
They thought of Fort McMurray and other places east —
Of Wabasca and Carcajou and even Lac La Biche.
Manyberries, Grouard, every town that staked its claim,
But every time they thought of it, the answer was the same.
They never thought of Edmonton or even Lake Louise,
Nor any other attraction that might the inmates please.
They scoffed at Banff and Jasper, those places were too known.
They had to find a little town far away from home.
“You’re in distance education but you’ll never make it pay
Unless we pick you up and move you very far away.
And just to be certain there’s no credibility gap,
We’ll move you to the town that’s in the middle of the map”.