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Athabasca University signs new agreement with Alberta government

Near-virtual strategy "ceased", staffing to increase locally
Athabasca University Board of Governors unanimously voted to accept the new Investment Management Agreement from the Alberta Government Nov. 30. AU president Peter Scott abstained from voting.

ATHABASCA — The government is protecting taxpayers' money by ensuring Athabasca University (AU) meets its mandate, says Alberta's Minister of Advanced Education, and that mandate will continue to have the Athabasca community at the forefront, but it will likely never be the same as before. 

The day after the final deadline for the AU Board of Governors, who unanimously voted to accept the new investment management agreement, Minister Demetrios Nicolaides said the government has provided the direction, now it’s up to the university to put it into action. 

The new IMA gives AU three years to increase local staffing by 25 to 277, and 44 per cent of the nine-person executive must be based out of Athabasca by 2025. 

“Government sets the goals and targets for institutions. If it's overreach for me to set targets related to employment levels, then we've done the exact same exercise with every other post-secondary institution in Alberta,” said Nicolaides in a Dec. 1 interview. “We've established targets for every other university and college regarding domestic enrolment levels, the number of students that are in work-integrated learning opportunities, things of that nature, and not one individual from any of those other 25 publicly funded post-secondary institutions has said or accused the government of any overreach.” 

The new IMA also puts a stop to the near virtual model AU has been working toward for the last five years, with the premise that if students can learn remotely, staff can work remotely. 

“One of the things that was included in the IMA was for the university to cease implementation of the near-virtual strategy,” he said. “So, with this new direction, I anticipate that the university will need to rethink its space utilization and I'm happy to talk more with president Scott and the university about what's needed and how we can work together.” 

In a Dec. 1 media release from AU, Scott reported the new agreement had been reached, but ceasing the university’s near-virtual agenda did not come across. 

“I am pleased to share with you that the AU Board of Governors has endorsed an investment management agreement with the provincial government that removes the threat of forced relocation of AU team members, creates financial stability, and gives us the ability to continue to work near-virtually, which will help AU compete for talent,” stated the release.  

“The Minister of Advanced Education asked AU to submit a plan to significantly increase its physical presence in Athabasca earlier this year. We were pleased to work with our community to develop and present a comprehensive and balanced plan to create an exciting research hub in northern Alberta, to benefit the Athabasca region and support the government's Alberta 2030 strategy.” 

A text message from Nicolaides reiterated his earlier comments following the AU release. 

“Per the IMA reached last night (Nov. 30), the board must, by Dec. 31, 2022, direct the president to cease implementation of the near-virtual strategy,” said Nicolaides. 

Earlier, the minister noted the new agreement made clear no one is forcing anyone else to move. The job is based in Athabasca, but people can live anywhere. 

“The requirement is that they be based there,” he said. "That's the language that was used in the IMA, that they are ‘based’ there, that their offices are there. So, that's the requirement set out in the investment management agreement.” 

The day after the announcement of the signed IMA, AU issued another media release announcing the resignation of two executives and while the timing may be questionable, Scott said, “Independently, (they) shared with me earlier this fall their plans to leave AU.” 

Nicolaides doesn’t believe there is anything in the IMA that would warrant a mass exodus of executives or staff. 

“I don't think that there's anything within the investment management agreement that is that egregious,” he said. “We're asking for four out of the nine executive members to be based in the town within three years and for the number of local employees to increase from 252 to 277, within three years. I think those are very realistic and very achievable. Furthermore, the board, from what I understand, was unanimous in its endorsement of the investment management agreement so, I think there's very clear direction and I’m confident we can move forward.” 

Contrary to what has been reported elsewhere, the president is not singled out among the executive to work at the local campus. 

“We did not specify which executive members. I don't know the details of the contracts of the individual executive members,” he said. "There could be individuals who are retiring or there may be plans to hire new executives. I think that's best left to the university. But again, we've established a very clear goal and target that 44 per cent of its executive team must be based in the town at the end of three years.” 

Athabasca County reeve Brian Hall and Town of Athabasca mayor Rob Balay issued a joint statement saying they were generally pleased, but several questions remain for them. 

“As recently as last week president Scott commented that about 300 AU staff work in the region, so it is difficult to reconcile what has been stated publicly versus the 252 total which the university has told the government, and which is included in the IMA. We trust that the Board will address this and other questions that arise,” the joint release stated. 

They also agreed it is not an overreach to have a publicly funded institution adhere to its mandate. 

“No other university in the province has attempted to leave from their community in the way Athabasca University has attempted to depart – hence the action from the Board, to direct the president to cease implementation of the near virtual strategy and develop a plan to that expands and reinforces the university’s physical presence in Athabasca. Contrary to comments about government overreach, it is extraordinary that the university took actions that required the government to intervene and put a stop to the exodus.” 

Hall and Balay said this is the first step in fixing the damage caused by the near-virtual strategy and congratulated AU’s board of governors for unanimously affirming a clear mandate. 

“We believe this is great news for Athabasca University and for the economic, social, and cultural wellbeing of our community. Together with members of the Town of Athabasca and Athabasca County councils, we will do whatever we can to help the university in its renewal and transition as it truly reopens the campus and expands its physical presence in Athabasca.” 

Keep Athabasca in Athabasca University (KAAU) chair John Ollerenshaw posted online the declining numbers AU has been dealing with since implementing the near virtual strategy. 

“Students are voting with their feet. The number of courses students have signed up for in the fiscal year ending March 2022 is down by more than 7,500 from the year ending March 2021. The number of student admissions is down by more than 5,000 in the same period,” said Ollerenshaw. “AU just lost its position as Alberta’s biggest university in terms of student numbers. Actual student numbers dropped from more than 43,000 to just over 38,000 over the last year, the lowest it's been since 2008, the lowest in 14 years.” 

He added that stressed frontline staff are working in deplorable conditions and can’t give students the support they need, courses are closing or becoming outdated and “students are frustrated trying to do simple things like booking exams, and they are particularly wary of spending a small fortune to get a degree from a university whose reputation has diminished to a point where their degrees might not be accepted, let alone respected.” 

Mavis Jacobs, who worked at AU and is a member of KAAU, is encouraged by the engagement from new board members. 

The current concern is the use of the buildings, which have all but been cleared out, and a hoteling space for staff to book when they want to be on campus working has been dubbed “The Dungeon.” 

“It's sad, the way staff have been treated and abused. The lack of respect staff in Athabasca who are working in the office have received,” said Jacobs about the hoteling space. 

As for building utilization, she said once the local staff are back on campus working, the buildings will be buzzing with activity. 

“If we have 277 staff, the building is going to fill up because the library takes up a lot of space, the science lab takes up quite a bit of space. They still need loading dock and all of that,” said Jacobs. “If you get 300 staff working in those two buildings, it's surprising, it feels full.” 

The AU Board of Governors now has until Dec. 31 to give clear direction to Scott about halting the near virtual strategy and begin implementation of a new plan to bring staff back to the campus. As a note, Scott also abstained from the unanimous vote to accept the new IMA. 

“This is about the government providing direction which is the government's responsibility,” Nicolaides said. “We set the mandate for all of our universities and colleges, we approve programs of study for all universities and colleges, so that's our role within the ministry is to provide direction to our adult learning system and that's exactly what we're doing in this case is directing the institution to create jobs in the community and bring their executive and administrative team to be based in the town.” 

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