The Town of Athabasca’s High Street
Image: Jon Dron

For those of you waiting with bated breath for the outcome of the fight between the Alberta government and Athabasca University about relocating most of AU’s staff back into the small town of Athabasca, the fight is now mainly over. A sort of compromise has been agreed, at least for the time being, but not without some casualties.

November 28 was the date by which the Board of Athabasca University had to come up with a plan that was acceptable to the government. On November 30, the Alberta government announced that an agreement had been reached.

The outcome

Here are the main results:

  • the government has signed off on ‘the new investment agreement’ for 2023-2024, which means AU still gets its originally targeted money from the Alberta government;
  • 25 more staff than are currently located in Athanbasca must move there within three years;
  • four of the nine university executives must also live in the town;
  • the university is examining ways it can bring more economic development to the town, such as locating a research ‘hub’ at the university;
  • two senior members of the university administration resigned, concerned that this whole sorry spectacle will make it impossible for the university to attract talented staff;
  • the government replaced most of Board with government appointees who were expected to toe the government line, thus losing the experience and wisdom of specialists in open and distance education, and in educational technology.

Nevertheless, the actual agreement is a sensible compromise. Well done, both sides. You avoided a slaughter on Main Street.


Beyond the immediate results, though, there are other consequences:

  • the government has lost considerable credibility. After making several ridiculous ultimatums, such as requiring 500 staff or more to live in a town of less than 2,000 people in total, and threatening to slash the university’s government grant by $3.4 million a month if it didn’t toe the government line, the government has backed down to just 25 more staff than at present settling in the town of Athabasca;
  • it shows how difficult it is for many people (especially politicians) to understand the major shift that is happening in the workforce, with ‘hybrid’ work becoming the norm;
  • the whole issue was driven by the university president’s strategy to make Athabasca University a virtual organization. One may question whether Peter Scott, the President, managed this well; certainly more prior consultation and communication with the government and more open discussions with the local townspeople might have helped. Nevertheless, an open university is an obvious choice for a virtual workforce, as all its students are also studying virtually. There is speculation (the source wishes to remain anonymous, as they do not have the authority to speak for the university) as to whether Scott will remain President. I hope he does: the university – and the government – needs him;
  • what is a university’s prime responsibility: to its students and staff; or to the local population? This should not be an either/or question. Surely it should be possible to serve both;
  • one expert in Canadian higher education, Professor Glen Jones of the University of Toronto, called the government’s actions ‘the most egregious political interference in a public university in Canada in more than 100 years.’ Would it have dared to behave similarly with a conventional university such as the University of Alberta? It seems open universities don’t get no respect.

It’s Alberta, stupid!

The whole handling of this matter reinforces my view that the current Alberta government lives in cloud cuckoo land, completely detached from reality (see for instance its attempt to decouple Alberta from federal law.) Where does it get such a chip on its shoulder? It is the richest province in Canada at the moment, thanks to its oil and gas revenues, but it acts as if the federal government is the Russian army for requiring Alberta to manage its environmental emissions more responsibly. Listen, Alberta: climate change is real and will affect you as well.

Bullying seems this government’s modus operandi. It could though be the last thrashings of a dying beast, given its ratings in the polls. I’m banking on the good sense of the citizens of Alberta at the next election in May. Please don’t prove me wrong!


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