Athabasca University and Alberta’s Ministry of Advanced Education disagree on the future plan for the university. (Photo by iStock)

Athabasca University and Alberta’s Ministry of Advanced Education disagree on the future plan for the university. (Photo by iStock)

Sylvan Lake students fear potential loss of Athabasca University

Local students who depend on online education are concerned about the future of Athabasca University (AU), while the university and Alberta’s Ministry of Advanced Education debate the future of the school.

The ministry has told AU that it needs to stop implementing what is known as the university’s “near-virtual” strategy, and it needs to expand and reinforce its presence in the town of Athabasca. This means relocating staff to the school’s physical location, rather than working remotely.

AU moved from Edmonton to Athabasca in 1984, with the purpose of being a major economic driver for the northern region of the province, as well as the town of Athabasca specifically. By allowing staff to relocate and work remotely, AU isn’t holding up their end of the bargain.

“We believe that the university can excel in its mandate, delivering world-class, distanced-learning education, while at the same time strengthening ties in the community and driving employment, economic growth and opportunity in the region,” stated Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides.

The ministry has directed AU to deliver a new strategic plan for approval by Sept. 30. The strategic plan falls under the Investment Management Agreement between AU and the ministry, an agreement the ministry has with all post-secondary institutions in the province.

“The original proposal has not changed and it’s still on the table,” said Nicolaides. “But I’m more than happy to hear alternatives. This is common practice when negotiating the terms of an Investment Management Agreement.”

Nicolaides explained that the ministry originally deferred to the university to create a plan to strengthen their presence within the town, but AU failed to answer questions posed by the government and didn’t have a clear timeline or plan to have senior administrative functions based in the town.

“There were no clear dates, costs or plans for strengthening their physical presence in the town,” said Nicolaides. “In the absence of a plan, we have been forced to develop our own roadmap. Alberta’s government looks forward to collaborating with and supporting the university in any ways necessary, to achieve the goals we have set out for them, as we await their new plan to be submitted by Sept. 30.”

The Keep Athabasca in Athabasca University advocacy group has been lobbying for this exodus of staff to stop.

According to the group’s Facebook page, “Athabasca University’s board of governors and executive have launched an ill-conceived ‘near-virtual’ plan that will basically close the Athabasca campus. By 2022, almost all staff will permanently work from home and new staff will be hired from anywhere in Canada. In 2017, more than 400 people were employed at the Athabasca campus. By 2022, less than 40 are expected to report there. Athabasca will eventually lose almost 400 good-paying jobs and about $37 million in annual wages, resulting in $100 million in economic loss to the region every year.”

The page goes on to say that such a loss will cripple the region.

“The depopulation of the region will lead to schools closing, businesses failing, housing prices dropping and the property tax base will suffer.”

Amber Lea, a Sylvan Lake resident, stated she decided to pursue her bachelor of arts degree in psychology with AU because of the flexibility the school offers.

“I’m a single mom with three little kids,” Lea said. “I work full time and I needed something that works around my schedule.”

AU has previously stated that if failing to comply with the government’s requests means a loss of funding, the university will likely have to shut down.

“I wouldn’t be able to continue with my education,” Lea said of this possibility.

When asked about the potential for staff to work on site, Lea said the only benefit she can see would be that communication times might decrease between staff and students.

“However, saying that, all office staff have been extremely timely and helpful,” she added. “I had an issue with one professor, so perhaps it wouldn’t make a difference at all.”

Lea is hoping to be able to finish her degree and secure a position working with elementary-aged children in a school setting.

Britnee Baker, a former Sylvan Lake resident who now resides in Red Deer, is currently a registered nurse working in the ICU there. Baker is taking her masters of nursing through AU.

“I looked into other options, but most of them still required more in-person time than I could afford to take,” she explained. “And the only other online programs were in different provinces, which definitely made their in-person components not doable.”

Baker works full time and has children. She said she’s concerned that mandating that teaching staff work on site would mean the loss of quality professors.

“Many of the instructors for my program are not located in Alberta,” she said, adding that she doesn’t believe many of them would want to or be able to relocate.

“That would be a huge loss to the program, and potentially a loss of my program without enough qualified instructors,” she said. “If AU cannot continue to offer classes, I would have to put this career advancement I’ve dreamed of for years on hold, if not just give it up all together, which would be devastating for me, but also a blow to the healthcare system. Many of the Albertans I know in my program are hoping to stay in Alberta and help alleviate some of the strain on our system.”

The standoff between AU and the province has a Sept. 30 deadline, and while both sides have previously stated they would be happy to see each other across the negotiation table, time will tell what that negotiation brings forth.

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