Last week, while preparing to write a report on the Alberta Views article mentioned in Sandra Moore’s letter and the recent AUSU press release, I requested feedback from AU President Dominique Abrioux, as well as the executive of AUSU. Based on the discussion revolving around the article, it seems that most of the concern is based on two items:
1. A quote from AUSU president Debbie Jabbour, stating that Athabasca University is in “serious trouble,” which may have sparked some concern about the future of AU, and;
2. A sidebar chart which compared tuitions at the Alberta Universities, which listed AU’s total tuition including textbooks and materials (the learning resources fee) instead of just tuition, resulting in the appearance that AU tuition is the highest in the province.
Dr. Abrioux addresses both of these items in his response, which was written as a letter to the students, and which I have included verbatim. Brief comments from AUSU council follow.
RESPONSE TO THE RECENT ALBERTA VIEWS ARTICLE, FROM DOMINIQUE ABRIOUX
Since base provincial government grants continue to be significantly lower than the cost of implementing annual staffing increases (that are bargained collectively and sometimes decided though arbitration) and increases in the CPI, ALL universities face serious financial challenges.
Athabasca University’s predicament is further impacted by the fact that non-base governmental envelope funding is based on traditional campus-based patterns of expenditure. Two examples:
– The Infrastructure Envelope provides grants to Alberta’s colleges and universities according to two primary factors: the size of campuses and the age of the buildings. Based on this formula, AU obviously receives very little infrastructure funding, though our IT infrastructure costs (for which there is no funding envelope) are considerably more important (both strategically and operationally) than at sister institutions.
– While Alberta institutional base (i.e. ongoing operational) government grants are not calculated on the basis of full-time equivalent student counts (FLE), the FLE count does come into play in certain one-time grants and in the thinking around base funding levels by government. Nowhere, for example, is it recognized that while part-time learners are economically less expensive to government than full-time students (because for the most part they continue to be employed, pay taxes, and/or provide home care to their children while studying), greater administrative costs (human & technical) per FLE are incurred in providing administrative services and support to them. Simply put: institutions that require 5 students to generate 1 FLE (each student taking 2 courses per year) incur far greater administrative costs (e.g. technology- and human-facilitated interactions with Registry, Student Services, Finance, Library, Info Centre) than institutions that have 1.5 students generate 1.0 FLE (each student taking at least 6 courses) because of the greater number of unique individual students that they need to administer.
To add to this, there is a further potential disadvantage faced by AU (and referred to by Debbie): the impact of the new Tuition Fee Policy that comes into effect on April 01, 2004. Depending on how the Regulation interprets the Act, AU may or may not fall under the cap, even though our fees are significantly lower than those at the other 3 Alberta public universities (a point that Alberta Views misrepresents by including our course materials fee in their published schedule).
So, how would I characterize AU’s actual financial situation? If we continue to grow by 10% per annum (our SUP target, and one that we will meet this year), and if the formula used to calculate the tuition fee cap results in us falling under the top (where we rightfully belong), AU is positioned to continue to present balanced operating budgets to the AUGC. This would be accomplished while maintaining tuition fees that are competitive both in Alberta and in the rest of Canada (after the addition of the out-of-province fee), and without in the immediate-term negatively impacting the quality of our courses, programs, and services.
Our financial challenge, however, has as much to do with long-term positioning as with balanced annual budgets. If the quality of courses, research, and services is going to improve, as it must, and not suffer from the ambitious growth targets that we have to meet in order to balance our annual budget, the University must accelerate its reinvestment in technology, administrative systems, and personnel. Here is where the External Relations division, created about 1.5 years ago, comes in. While its targets are initially modest, the principal challenge is to develop an external funding culture at AU, one on which we can build year after year. I believe that we are already starting to see the impact of this new emphasis and that an imminent announcement by the Alberta government will demonstrate this to be the case.
In conclusion, we face stiff challenges but the University’s short-term financial situation is no different than it has been for the last 10 years. Today, though, we are more at risk because general reductions in the government funding of post-secondary institutions have made us very dependent on 10% annual undergraduate growth. We recognize that this can only be achieved and maintained in the longer run if AU continues to improve the overall quality of its students’ educational experience. In turn, this depends on the institution’s ability to be innovative and creative, to add new additional revenue sources, while at the same time work with sister institutions to better represent the added value of further investment by government in post-secondary education.
Were I an AU student, would I be worried? Notwithstanding future tuition fee increases (that I do recognize as a hardship but that will remain competitive in Alberta and the rest of Canada), I would consider AU’s future as more assured than that of sister institutions. During the last ten years, Athabasca University has demonstrated and built upon the very qualities that will be required to be successful in education during the next decade: quality academic content and learning systems; technology-driven delivery models; a strong service culture; and, innovative, out-of-the-box thinking.
With the support of colleagues and our students, our future is indeed bright!
AUSU Council President, Debbie Jabbour, was interviewed for the Alberta Views article in question, and had this to say about her comments, which have sparked some concerns about AU’s financial status:
I was responding to a question by the author of the magazine, in which she asked what the most serious issue was facing AU students. I responded in kind, using the word serious, not realizing that in the context of how the sentence was worded it might sound like the university was in financial trouble. This is certainly not the case and not what I intended to say. Athabasca University executive and finance department work hard to ensure a balanced budget, and I’ve never received any indication from governing council or any other meetings that AU might be in any kind of financial trouble. It is true that the Alberta government funding formula that bases funding on physical infrastructure seriously disadvantages AU in comparison with Alberta’s campus-based universities. This is the point I was attempting to make. I was also attempting to raise awareness that the government does not adequately fund AU. I concur with Dr. Abrioux’s statements that unless the government of Alberta changes the way they fund post secondary education, including AU, this could create problems for AU in the future.
Finally, AUSU VP Shirley Barg answered a few questions on the issue.
Shirley, does AUSU have knowledge that the university is in serious financial trouble at this time?
I have no knowledge of this. I don’t think AU is different from any other university. They are all under-funded and they are all crying for more money from the government. Students are all concerned about a higher proportion of education costs being placed on their shoulders, to the limits that the government allows.
Do you have access to information or sources which have revealed a more drastic situation than we know?
If there is no such information, why was this statement made it in a very public magazine article?
The words of the AUSU president were not intended to mean what they came across as meaning. The President meant to stress the importance of funding, and the desperate need for more government funding of post-secondary education.
Shirley, what would you say right now to Athabasca University students who are currently considering full-time study at AU, or who already have a great deal of time invested in an AU degree?
Keep on! All students should have the utmost confidence in the university that it will provide the level of education that will be required in the workforce, and that AU will be here until they are finished their studies, and for a long, long time after they have graduated.