The president of Athabasca University calls Alberta demand for on-site staff backwards, ruinous

Written by Javed Iqbal

The president of Athabasca University says the Alberta government’s demand that the online school move 500 employees to a rural town is so backward, unfair and self-defeating that it threatens to put the institution “on the road to ruin.”

Peter Scott says he’s all for economic development in Athabasca, a town of less than 3,000 residents 145 kilometers north of Edmonton. But he says he cannot understand why Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides is demanding his school be the main economic driver.

He also questions using money to uproot and accommodate hundreds of employees – if they want to come – while not promoting the school’s core mission of quality online education.

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Scott said the school has successfully bounced back from near bankruptcy in 2015, has money in the bank, is growing its programs and boasts 40,000 virtual students across Canada.

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“Why are we having a conversation about cutting the budget for a university that’s doing a good job? It’s a strange place to be,” Scott said Friday in an interview.

“If you want to help rural Alberta, maybe there’s another minister with an investment fund that could really help that community — and I’d be very happy to contribute as a pillar of that community.

“But I should not be asked to set aside student funds to carry out that work. The Alberta government should screw up and get on with it.”

Earlier Friday, in a web video, Scott urged staff and students affected to contact Nicolaides and make their feelings known, telling them, “signing this agreement could set the university back 40 years and put it on the path to destruction. “

A week ago, Nicolaides ordered the school to come up with a plan within two months to get more staff and management members to physically work in Athabasca.

If the school does not implement the relocation plan, the minister warns the school could face a cut to its $3.4 million a month performance grant.

Just under 300 university employees currently work at Athabasca, representing a quarter of the total school workforce.

The rest work remotely. Of those teleworkers, the school says one in three live in rural areas — either Athabasca or elsewhere, with staff spread among 100 cities, towns and villages in Alberta.

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Scott said Nicolaides wants 500 more employees, including management members, to move to the city by 2025.

Scott said in the web video that Nicolaides “has put (the university) in an unreasonable and untenable position.”

He said if the university’s board votes in favor of the plan, the relocation costs for employees and their families, along with tight schedules, would be nearly impossible to implement — meaning the school would lose its funding for not complying.

But, he said, if the school doesn’t sign the agreement by the end of September, it could lose its funding anyway — about a quarter of its budget, with bankruptcy inevitably following.

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Nicolaides was not available for an interview, but said in a statement: “This government will not waver in its support of (Athabasca University) as a key economic and social driver in the northern region.

“Alberta taxpayers deserve to see their millions of dollars in funding for this institution benefiting both the local community and Albertans.”

The minister said he has taken the next step with the September deadline because the university failed to provide a workable plan for staff relocation when it was asked to produce one in June.

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“In the absence of a plan, we have been forced to develop our own roadmap,” Nicolaides said.

The statements are the latest move in what has turned into a five-month standoff between the minister and the school.

Nicolaides has said the school can still be efficient while helping the economy grow, but Scott has resisted. He said the change would make it harder to recruit top talent and flourish in online education.

More importantly, Scott said, it has changed the reason for the school’s existence.

“The majority of our performance grants are now tied to metrics that support the economic development of a city of 2,800 people instead of a student population of 40,000,” he said.

The change was announced earlier this year after a local lobbying group — called Keep Athabasca at Athabasca University — lobbied to get more administrative staff and management members to work in the city to help boost the economy.

In March, Premier Jason Kenney came to town to promise the province would make changes to bring people back.

To further that goal, Nicolaides replaced the chairman of the board in May and added more city members to the board.

© 2022 The Canadian Press

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Javed Iqbal

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