On Tuesday, May 5, after 44 years in power, the Progressive Conservatives were swept away by an orange wave?Alberta’s New Democratic Party won a majority government with 53 of the 87 seats in the legislature. The Wildrose Party will form the official opposition with 21 seats. The Progressive Conservatives won just 10 seats, and the Liberal Party and Alberta Party won one seat each. Two constituencies could face by-elections, as one saw a tie between the NDP and PC candidates with 7015 votes each, and another was vacated by the resignation of former premier Jim Prentice while ballots were still being counted.
What will the shift from the politically right PC government to the politically centre-left NDP government mean for Athabasca University and AU students?
Alvin Finkel, Chair of Change Alberta (an organization that advocated for strategic voting to oust the PC government), is an Athabasca University Professor Emeritus, and says “I believe that Rachel Notley and the NDP are committed to fairness to students ? Rachel tutored for AU for a time and she understands well the role that Athabasca University plays for students who prefer to study at a distance or for whom it is really the only option that will allow them to obtain a university degree.”
Lawton Shaw, president of the Athabasca University Faculty Association, echoes Finkel’s optimism, and says he believes the change will be very positive for Athabasca University and its students. “AUFA wants to see the university thrive and offer the highest quality of online and distance education,” Shaw says, “and that means that the university requires stable government funding. The NDP platform was music to my ears, because it spoke to restoring funding for post-secondary, as well as to ensuring academic freedom.”
Both Finkel and Shaw hope that in addition to reversing cuts, the new government will review how Athabasca University is funded. Under the current funding model, AU receives government funding only for students who live inside Alberta (about a third of the total student body). Shaw hopes that the government will “recognize the value that AU provides, because AU does a lot for Albertans, not just the rest of the country,” as well as “provide government oversight for some of the more troubling decisions the Board of Governors has made lately.”
Finkel believes the government should provide “per capita funding for all AU students, rather than take the miserly and hypocritical view” of the Conservatives “that Athabasca should market itself as a national university but not receive one cent” for students outside Alberta. Previous Athabasca MLA, Jeff Johnson, did privately support AU, Finkel continues, but “he was part of a government that insisted on continuous cuts in the post-secondary sector.”
The new Athabasca MLA, Colin Piquette, “by contrast, is part of a government that campaigned on a commitment to restore proper funding for public services,” Finkel adds. When asked to comment on what his election could mean for AU students, Piquette said, “all I can say at this point is stay tuned,” explaining that the election results are not yet official, and a cabinet must still be selected.
Piquette holds a Master of Adult Education from the University of Alberta, and has worked as a professional researcher. His father, Leo Piquette, also represented Athabasca as an NDP MLA, and fought to uphold French language rights in the Alberta legislature. Shaw says that Colin Piquette “understands the support the university needs, as well as academic governance.” In a meeting with AUFA, Piquette “also expressed an understanding of how post-secondary can lift up disadvantaged communities into better lives.”
Jason Nixon, now MLA for Rimbey-Rocky Mountain House-Sundre and a member of the Wildrose Opposition, believes that the change of government will be a positive thing for Athabasca University. “There will definitely a lot of people on both sides of the aisle that are concerned about post-secondary education,” Nixon said, noting that there will also be “two former AUSU presidents” in the legislature (referring to himself* and Peace River MLA, Debbie Jabbour). “Lots of people care, and That’s a good thing,” Nixon concluded. “I will always fight for post-secondary, because I know that It’s an investment, not an expense.”
Bethany Tynes completed her MA in Integrated Studies through AU, and is a Canadian politics junkie.
* This means that AUSU Council will have three vacancies, and Shawna Wasylyshyn will serve as acting president. Under AUSU Policy 3.03.01, council is not compelled to hold a by-election to fill these spaces, though it would seem advisable, given that the council will be operating at just two-thirds of its capacity and has nearly a year remaining in its mandate.