August 14, 2018

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?


How higher education policy really works: a Canadian example

Photo Vancouver

Beautiful British Columbia; smelly politics

First of all, apologies for the interruption to normal service over the last month. I was on a tight deadline to finish revisions to the manuscript for my book, which is now with the publishers. However, having met the deadline, with everything in clean electronic format, I now learn the book will not be published until July 2011. Traditional publishing is in DEEP trouble.

Second, I apologize to resume service with a highly critical blog post (so out of character, I know). However, there are things that need to be said.

My former colleague Mark Bullen directed me to a news release from Thompson Rivers University, which announced that

the Open Learning Division of Thompson Rivers University (TRU) is slated to commence operations at its Vancouver office …. on November 3.  Judith Murray, Vice President, TRU-OL, explained that the OL Administration always intended to have a Vancouver presence for Open Learning in order to help fulfill its mandate to provide open and distance education to the province of British Columbia. “The majority of our students and the majority of the Open Learning Faculty reside in the lower mainland,” Murray said. “The presence is important to keep TRU-OL top of mind for prospective students from the lower mainland and to best serve the needs of our Open Learning Faculty Members.”

Now this is very good news. TRU, which is based in Kamloops, a four hour drive from Vancouver, offers the only open access degree program in the province, and a Vancouver centre makes a lot of sense, since nearly two thirds of the population live within an hour’s drive of Vancouver.

The timing though is, if not coincidental, at least symbolic. Because the very same day, the Premier of the Province, Gordon Campbell, shocked the media (but not the public) by announcing his resignation.

Shortly after coming to power in 2001, Campbell’s government closed both Tech BC and the Open Learning Agency (OLA), which operated the Open University of BC, in partnership with the University of British Columbia (UBC), Simon Fraser University (SFU), and the University of Victoria (UVic) (at the time, the three premier research universities in the province.)

The OU of BC allowed students to enter post-secondary education without prior qualifications, take foundation courses (first and second year programs) by distance from the OLA’s Open University program, then finish the degree with distance programs from any or all of the other three universities, getting a degree of the Open University of BC, which was recognized as a full public university degree. At one time, its headquarters was just one block away from TRU’s new Open Learning Centre, although it was originally based in Richmond, then when it was closed, in Burnaby, both suburban cities, next to Vancouver. People came from all over the world to see what OLA was doing; indeed, I emigrated to Canada to work there, although I had left for UBC several years before it was closed.

The decision to close both the OLA and Tech BC was done purely to save money to cut a government operating deficit. (OLA at the time had an annual operating budget of $20 million, which covered the OU program, its Open College program, and an educational television channel, as well as providing other services, including an extremely valuable process for recognising foreign credentials and converting them to credits that could be used in the BC post-secondary system). In its place, the government created BC Campus (with a budget one tenth of the OLA’s) which ended up as a useful organization, but not one that offered any programs itself. In other words, in 2001 Campbell’s government abolished open learning within the province.

However, there was a problem. The OU of BC had 16,000 students and they were mad at the government. It had to find somewhere to dump them. For a period of nearly four years, the OU students were in a kind of limbo, being supported by a skeleton staff still located in Burnaby. In 1995, though, to meet the increasing demand for post-secondary education in the province, the government (with almost no consultation) suddenly converted most of the the unique University Colleges of BC, which offered both technical and vocational programs, and two year university programs, from where students could transfer to traditional universities, into full universities. So the University College of the Caribou suddenly became Thompson Rivers University, giving the city of Kamloops a much prized full university. (Poor Kelowna, though, that voted for the opposition, had its University College of the Okanagan split into a two year college, with the university component swallowed up by UBC, another fours hours drive away).

At this point, someone in the government had a brilliant idea: ‘Let’s transfer the OU of BC to Thompson Rivers University!’ This brilliant idea though did not take into account that TRU nor its predecessors had any experience of open or distance learning. For several years, TRU complained that it didn’t get the same level of funding for its open students as it did for the campus students, and nothing much happened until around 2008, when a new VP for the Open University was appointed. Since then, TRU has been developing its open university program with vigour and conviction, and it is certainly ironic that open learning should suddenly return to Vancouver the same day that the premier quits. So what goes around, comes around – even if it takes 10years.

Now I have to tell you that I did a Ph.D. in educational administration at the Institute of Education in the University of London, and a fine program it was. We covered all sorts of things, such as different models of post-secondary education, funding models, government roles, etc. Another thing you should know is that for four hard years, I was an elected representative, a County Councillor in England, equivalent to a Member of the Legislative assembly (an MLA in Canadian provincial politics). I was in fact the opposition spokesperson on education.

But nowhere in my fine University of London program or in my petty provincial politics in England was there anything close to the sheer brutal nature of politics in British Columbia, where voters who support the government are bought off with a new university, and those without power and influence are sacrificed. (We won’t go into the scandal of the sale of BC Rail and the fall two government employees took for their political masters on this). I do have great respect for most politicians who sacrifice a great deal in the name of public service, but not all politicians are like that. Some are in it for the wrong reasons, or for the right reasons, but are so driven by their self-interest or ideology that they do bad things. Gordon Campbell is one of the latter. I am not sorry to see him go, and good luck to TRU and its Open University.

And, in fairness I have to say, the OLA wasn’t perfect – there were changes needed, but not its abolition. And despite the current government, we do have many excellent institutions of post-secondary education in the province. But British Columbia sure ain’t a textbook case of how to run a higher education system – well, not if you’re looking for best practice.