December 16, 2017

A brighter future for Athabasca University?

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 Lastly it still has the same structural problems with an outdated course design and development model and poor student support services, especially on the academic side.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.

Is there light at the end of the tunnel for Athabasca University?

Light at end of tunnel

Climenhaga, D. (2017) Athabasca U’s future seems brighter as Saskatchewan prof named to conduct sustainability review Albertapolitics.ca, January 19

Climenhaga, D. (2016) Alberta Government names five new members to Athabasca University Board of Governors,Albertapolitics.ca, October 

The good news

I’ve written several times before about the troubles at Athabasca University, which bills itself as Canada’s open university (for a full list of my posts on AU and its troubles, see the end of this post). Most of my posts have been bleak about AU’s future because the news coming out of Alberta about the university was so bad.

So I am very happy to be able at last to see light at the end of the tunnel. This is due to several events in the last six months:

  • the appointment of a new President with extensive experience in the management of Albertan post-secondary educational institutions (Neil Fassina, formerly provost and vice-president academic at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology)
  • gradual renewal of the board with new appointments, and a targeted date (March 2018) for further new appointments to the board
  • the appointment of Dr. Ken Coates as ‘the independent third-party reviewer who will try to figure out how the perpetually broke AU can be made sustainable’.

In particular the changes to the Board and a new President were essential first steps to secure the future of the university. The NDP government, despite the financial crisis in Alberta due to low oil prices, seems to recognise that Athabasca University is funded per student at a much lower rate than the other universities, and will probably need more operational funding in the future. At the press conference to announce Professor Coates’ appointment, the Minister of Advanced Education stated that the government:

is committed to ensure adequate funds are in place to run the institution throughout Dr. Coates’s sustainability review. We’ve made sure the money is there to keep the lights on, people working and students learning.

This commitment is important as there are 30,000 students’ futures at stake.

So here is some gratuitous but well meaning advice for the Alberta government and Professor Coates from someone who cares a great deal about the future of the university, and knows a little bit about open and distance education.

Vision first

This is the most important, and actually the most difficult, challenge for Ken Coates and the government. What is the future role for AU in a world that has radically changed since its foundation almost 50 years ago? What added value can open and distance learning provide in the Alberta post-secondary education system? What needs can or does AU serve that are not being served by the other institutions? To answer those questions the university needs to look outward, not inward.

In earlier posts I have suggested what some of those roles could be:

  • widening access, particularly for lifelong learners, aboriginal students, and other potential learners denied access to the conventional post-secondary education
  • innovation in teaching: AU should be a world leader in the design of flexible, cost-effective online learning, a laboratory and test-bed for the rest of the Alberta post-secondary system
  • regional development and research: this is where it should focus its content and programs. Alberta is in the midst of dramatic changes to energy and resource development, climate change, and economic development. Find a niche here that has been left by the other universities and fill that.

However, it is really not for me to suggest a vision from AU. This needs to be created within and for Alberta. But the vision should drive everything else. To get buy-in and support for such a vision, an extensive process of consultation both internally and externally will be needed. This should have been done years ago so it needs to be done not only carefully but quickly.

In particular, all other decisions – about funding, labour contracts, course development – should be dependent on the vision, first and foremost. If there is general buy-in to the vision from all the stakeholder groups, these other thorny issues become much easier to deal with.

The teaching model

Athabasca University was a revolutionary 45 years ago when it introduced its teaching model of open access, continuous enrolment and independent, guided study based on quality printed materials. But that was the late 60s and early 70s. It’s 2017 now and the current teaching model is not only antiquated by modern standards, it is very costly and inflexible. Tightly linked to this is a generation of faculty and administrators who have known nothing else.

There has in fact been considerable internal expertise on the design of online and distance learning at AU, but this expertise has been constantly ignored in terms of actual decision-making about design models, or rather interesting designs have been pushed to the margins and haven’t affected the bulk of the teaching, particularly in the undergraduate programs.

This has to change. Slimmer, more flexible and above all less costly methods of course design and development are needed that take account of the rapid developments in new learning technologies since the 1970s.

I can’t see how this change in teaching models can happen without a major change in personnel, particularly in the academic and administrative areas, and without accompanying changes in labour agreements. AU’s location in the boondocks does not help in recruiting quality academic staff, although online learning means that faculty do not have to be physically located even in Alberta.  

Again, though, decide on appropriate teaching models, then develop labour agreements around this that are fair and reasonable. This will be helped if faculty and administrators buy into the new vision for teaching and learning. Those that don’t should leave. The students deserve better teaching than they are getting at the moment.

System synergy

AU’s role vis-a-vis the other post-secondary institutions in the province needs to be clarified, developed and agreed by not only the other institutions but also the government. In other words, a process such as Ontario’s strategic mandate agreements is needed.

Alberta though has a much smaller system than Ontario’s. It should be possible to get all the universities around a rather small coffee table. British Columbia back in the days of the Open Learning Agency had a Provost’s Council that worked out not only the relationship between OLA and the other universities, but agreed on joint program development, sharing of courses, and credit transfer for open and distance learning. Alberta needs something similar, some kind of forum that enables institutions to agree roles and functions in open and online learning. But again Athabasca needs to work out its vision and role first.

Funding

Although this has been the main focus in recent years to me it is the least of the problems. Even in a cash-strapped province such as Alberta’s, AUs funding is almost in the margin of error in the total provincial budget. But rightly the government doesn’t want to throw good money after bad.

The biggest need is a new approach to IT at the university. AU has had major problems with IT security, and IT management. Whatever vision for the university is decided, it needs to move away from a massive, centralised, local IT operation to more flexible, decentralised, cloud-based solutions. Again though the IT model needs to be driven by the vision for the university, not the other way round.

Will they get it right?

There is still a long way to go before Athabasca gets to the end of the tunnel, and there are several major factors that could still derail it. Indeed, let’s hope that the light isn’t another train that runs right over the university.

My biggest concern is that although the recent steps by the government are all in the right direction (new board, new president and an external review), where is the open and distance education expertise so urgently needed to guide Athabasca into the future? The government, the board, the CEO and even the external consultant have no experience in this field. In what other business other than open and distance education would this be acceptable?

It could be argued that the expertise lies within the institution. If so, over the last ten years there has been a lamentable inability to make good use of this expertise in the planning and management of the university. (See my previous posts below for evidence of this). Indeed, the top people in online and distance education field who were at AU have either retired, moved on or given up trying. Ken Coates needs to tap into this expertise and particularly their knowledge of the barriers that have stifled innovation in teaching and learning at AU.

Also when appointing a new board, the government should make sure that at least one board member is knowledgeable and experienced in open and distance education. Surely that’s not too much to ask?

So I wish Ken Coates the very best in his very challenging mission. But don’t call on me – I’m retired.

Further reading

I am surprised how much space I have devoted in this blog to the troubles at AU. Put them all together, though, and you get a pretty good picture of the challenges it has been facing:

Feb 25, 2013: What’s going on at Athabasca University? (about the firing of four senior staff)

Feb 27, 2013: Athabasca University’s President to stand down – but not soon

Jan 28, 2014: Is Athabasca University moving away from tutoring?

Jun 9, 2015: Athabasca University’s Troubles Grow (about a different sustainability report written by the previous interim President)

Jun 12, 2015: Advice to the Alberta Government on Athabasca University’s sustainability report 

Jun 14, 2015: Advice to students about Athabasca University

Jun 30, 2015: What can past history tell us about the ‘crisis’ at Athabasca University?

 

What can past history tell us about the Athabasca University ‘crisis’?

Any merger needs to resolve incompatible union collective agreements

Any merger needs to resolve incompatible union collective agreements

It’s not just the Greeks who are having problems financially, even though they are getting all the headlines. In earlier posts I commented on Athabasca University’s so-called impending ‘insolvency’, as the president put it. As with all crises, the actual ‘end’ is never certain until it happens, so perhaps there’s still time for the Alberta government and Athabasca University to learn from history.

Questions from Wayne Burnett

Wayne Burnett, one of readers of this post, has asked some pretty good questions about what we can learn from the past that might help Athabasca in its current struggles. I originally replied to his comment with another comment, but feel the discussion needs a post of its own.

Wayne asked:

I would be interested in your comments (or the observations of your readers) on:

  1. What makes AU unique, from a student perspective? That’s the best argument for increased government support. What is it that students get from AU that they cannot get from the online initiatives at bricks and mortar universities?
  2. What has been the experience as BCOU was merged into TRU? Did the student experience change? Were there cost savings?
  3.  I don’t see the Feds getting involved (as they would be asked to help out TRU, Télé-université, and maybe others) but is there a possibility of seeking an arrangement with Saskatchewan and Manitoba, given that there is already some co-operation in higher education in the Western provinces? Does the UKOU get funding from the Scotland and Northern Ireland governments?

Cheers, Wayne

My response

Great questions, Wayne. Fancy a job as President at AU?!

I’ll do my best to provide a personal answer to Wayne’s questions, but each one is probably better answered by others.

1. What makes AU unique, from a student perspective?

This is a question for the Board and senior administration at Athabasca and it’s negligent to the point of irresponsible that they have not come out with a vision statement that sets this out clearly for government and for their own staff.

It isn’t actually hard to do, either.

  1. The first answer is that AU provides open access, enabling those who do not have the necessary qualifications for conventional universities to attempt higher level studies.
  2. Alberta needs more trained and qualified workers and has been depending on immigrants from outside Alberta, who need opportunities for continuing and higher education but do not have the qualifications for entry to conventional universities and cannot study full-time.
  3. Alberta also has a large and fast growing aboriginal population that is under-educated and desperately needs alternative routes to post-secondary education.
  4. None of the conventional universities in Alberta offer full undergraduate degrees at a distance, and there are very few fully online post-graduate degrees from the other universities.

I could go on, but AU needs not only to state that these are its main target groups, because they are under-served by the conventional institutions, but also has a plan of action for meeting these needs, which would require some substantial changes to the current curriculum and program offerings, for instance.

2. What has been the experience as BCOU was merged into TRU?

Again, this is best answered by former BCOU students and possibly by the OL division at TRU, but here’s my two cents worth.

Initially, it was pretty disastrous for most BCOU students. The BC government had no plan for the 16,000 or so students enrolled in the BCOU through the Open Learning Agency when they closed the OLA in 2003. They tried to get BCIT to take it on (OLA’s campus/building was near to the BCIT campus), but because of the unique union agreements for part-time BCOU faculty/tutors, BCIT did not want to touch it, nor did SFU.

This resulted in a period of nearly seven years when these 16,000 students were in limbo, until eventually TRU was forced or decided to take on these students. Again, however, because of the union agreements for BCOU part-time staff, because TRU had recently been changed from a college to a university, and because the ‘open’ students received less grant from government than the on-campus students, many of the campus faculty and administration were hostile to, or reluctant to acknowledge the validity of, ‘open’ or distance learning.

As a result TRU has to this day maintained strict apartheid between the campus and the open parts of its operation. Although in recent years the atmosphere has improved considerably, and a new administration is now much more supportive of the OL division, 12 years on, enrolments in the TRU OL division are just getting back to where they were when BCOU was closed down.

Perhaps more importantly, like AU, the OL division has not had the funds or the institutional commitment to make the major changes in its teaching model needed as a result of developments in online learning. However, if there are any BCOU students reading this, please let us have your views on this.

3. Is there a possibility of seeking an arrangement with Saskatchewan and Manitoba?

Well, there is already a co-operative of Canadian universities called the Canadian Virtual University, which includes the University of Manitoba, and Thompson Rivers University (TRU) in British Columbia (as well, as, interestingly, Mount Royal University in Alberta). There is automatic transfer of credits between Alberta and BC post-secondary institutions already (I actually went to an announcement about this by the then BC Minister of Advanced Education when embarrassingly he referred to Athabasca University as BC’s new open university, much to the chagrin of the TRU delegation.) So there are already opportunities for economies of scale by sharing courses from other institutions. The issue is whether this has been fully exploited at Athabasca, by using courses from other institutions rather than providing a complete program from within AU. I’m not in a position to answer that question.

The issue though isn’t so much about Saskatchewan or Manitoba, since the overall numbers of potential AU students from either province is likely to be low, but Ontario. Currently Ontario students make up 40 per cent of AU’s enrolments. What’s not clear is how much this will change now that the Council of Ontario Universities has established its own ‘Ontario Online.’

Although this will result in more online courses available from Ontario universities, it does not necessarily guarantee fully online programs. Even more importantly, Ontario Online still requires students to meet the qualifications for entry to Ontario universities before students can take their online courses. However, don’t expect Ontario to give money to Alberta to support Ontario students who want access to Athabasca.

What the Federal government could do, though, is to offer student aid to lifelong learners without a degree wanting to take further online qualifications from recognised institutions anywhere in Canada , which would then enable these Ontario students to be supported at Athabasca, as could students from all over Canada. Since there’s an election coming and none of the parties has stated its higher education policy yet……

4. Does the UKOU get funding from the Scotland and Northern Ireland governments [as well as from the government of England and Wales]? 

Sorry, I don’t know the answer to this question. Can anyone from the UKOU help with this? (My cynical answer would be that it’s equal treatment from all three governments: no funding at all, these days.)

What lessons can be drawn?

Here’s what I take away from this situation, although I’m sure readers will draw other conclusions:

1. No unique/non-conventional institution can survive without:

  • being clear about what makes it unique, and continuously identifying its uniqueness in changing circumstances;
  • having a clear strategy and plans to meet that unique mandate;
  • being nimble enough to adapt rapidly to changing external factors, without losing its unique advantages.

2. Closing or even merging a unique institution will usually leave a large gap in educational provision, and students enrolled in such a unique institution will suffer as a result of such closures or mergers, no matter how much a government may wriggle to mitigate such effects. Any re-organisation or merger must resolve incompatible union agreements to stand a chance of future success.

3. Although I didn’t discuss this explicitly with regards to the closure of the OLA, good leadership of unique institutions is even more important than for conventional institutions; it is essential that the leadership of such institutions wins and maintains the trust and confidence of government, and that requires constant attention and communication of the unique role and value of the institution. Once that trust is lost, it is almost impossible to regain, especially if its uniqueness is fading or under challenge.

4. Open and distance learning transcend provincial, state or even national boundaries. It is counter-productive to try to limit open and distance education to just state or provincial boundaries. Government and institutions need to develop business strategies that support and enable cross-state and cross-provincial activities in open and distance learning, for instance, through:

  • two-tier fee systems,
  • collaborative programming such as the CVU,
  • self-financing through tuition fees.

4. Nevertheless, in a provincial post-secondary education system such as Canada’s, it is in reality impossible to get financial support from other provincial governments for residents taking courses from an institution in another province. However, Federal policies regarding student financial aid could help institutions with a student enrolment footprint larger than their province. The Federal government should have a strategy for supporting lifelong learning, for economic reasons alone, and Federal student financial aid should support such a cross-provincial strategy.

So, Wayne, yes, there are lessons to be learned from the past here, but it would be extraordinary in Canadian higher education if these lessons ever get applied to rational decision-making.

Over to you

I’d love to hear from BCOU students, AU students, or open learning faculty/tutors at TRU about this:

  • What would you recommend to the Alberta government and/or Athabasca University, from your experience?
  • Most of all, what advice would you give to current or potential AU students?

 

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

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.

Athabasca University’s troubles grow

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.