Editorial – The Dark Lining on the Silver Cloud

If you follow news about AU, you might have come across this article from David Climenhaga at AlbertaPolitics.ca that looks at various moves by AU’s Board of Governors in comparison with what’s been coming from the Alberta Advanced Education Minister, Marlin Schmidt. The article notes that the board seems to object in particular to having to run the university without being able to reduce the staffing, as a recent motion says “That the Members of the Board of Governors are conscious of their fiduciary responsibility to the university, and pass this motion with strong reservations knowing ? the inability of the university to realize a balanced budget at current staffing levels without an infusion of funds from the government.”

The report also groups together a couple of other things, including a blog from a former AU tutor on why she left AU. If you haven’t seen that yet, go give it a read, it’s an interesting look behind the scenes at AU, and should give us, as students, an even better feeling toward those tutors who give us excellent service.

It was quickly responded to by AU’s Communications Director, John O’Brien, who put out a post on Facebook directing people to Minister Schmidt’s speech at the recent Convocation Ceremonies, where the Minister promised a long, bright future for AU. Critical readers, however, will note that nothing Minister Schmidt says in any way addresses the issues brought up in the AlbertaPolitics.ca article. The NDP could well be planning that AU will have a long and bright future, to be brought about by lopping off the current head of the organization and restructuring it entirely.

After all, from 2014 to 2015, the AU annual report shows that median pay increase of the five executive members was 9% (p.B24), even though President MacKinnon, as the interim President, came into the job taking less than 75% of the total payment to his predecessor. Yet this increase happened despite dire warnings about the possible solvency of the university as a whole, and during a period when the executive and board seemed to be doing whatever they could to cut staffing costs to those areas that don’t seem as vital to them, such as tutors. This would seem to be directly at odds with the Alberta NDP’s latest actions where they are looking at various agencies, boards, and commissions, and sometimes taking drastic steps to deal with those committees that they feel are taking too much for what they provide to Albertans.

However, while this may seem worrying to some (and perhaps heartening to others), what seems to be being said to students is that, whatever happens with the leadership at AU, we can rely on the fact that the university itself is going to be protected, so we can enroll and proceed with our programs with the confidence that one day, we could be walking across that stage getting our degree.

What that degree will be worth, and what AU will look like in a few years’ time, however, is anybody’s guess. The current trajectory seems to me to be on target to make AU into an accredited version of lynda.com or Udemy if that were possible. And really, it makes sense. After all, as a recent article in The Walrus talked about, almost half of us taking a degree program either wouldn’t be doing so, or would be taking an entirely different program, if we didn’t feel that the degree we were pursuing was a requirement for a high quality career. When you discard the notion of a university being a place where students learn how to critically think about, evaluate, and analyse?well?anything, and instead turn it into a place where students get trained in what they need for a job, (or worse, don’t get trained in much of anything at all because instructors are afraid to fail students and be poorly rated as a result) it doesn’t make sense to be hiring highly educated critical thinkers and paying them wages appropriate to that training to teach what essentially becomes a technical school program.

This is even more true at Athabasca University, where over half of all the funding comes from students’ tuition. As any business minded person knows, when the bulk of your funding comes from a specific customer base, you better make that base happy. And students aren’t happy when they fail a course, even if it’s deserved. So, if the primary concern of the leadership of AU is of their fiduciary responsibility to the organization rather than the academic responsibility of the organization to the society; if, as Dr. Panchuk says, Athabasca University is more concerned with delivering courses than educating students, then this path makes perfect sense.

If you’re wondering where this rant is leading, it all ties back into this issue of The Voice Magazine, where we’re looking at convocation (both in word and pictures), and we have the second half of our interview with the Associate Vice President of Academic and Student Services, where she talks about what’s important for students coming to AU should know about the institution. Both of these articles are strongly positive, and they should be. Graduating from a university degree program, especially an Athabasca one, is a significant achievement.

But the dark lining around that silver cloud is the very notion of the degree itself.

So as you read Deanna Roney’s uplifting account of participating in the graduation ceremony, and look at the pictures of the university and the activity going on there around convocation; as you read Dr. May’s positive story about her struggles and how she dealt with them to achieve the position she’s reached today; as you read Minister Schmidt’s words about the future of AU, remember that it’s not all roses, and that, as students, we need to be vigilant. We need to make sure that not just the ability to get degrees, but the value of those degrees as indicators of higher learning, not just job training, remains in place. What this means is that we need to celebrate those tutors that are tough, the ones that push us and don’t let us get by with work that we know is less than our best. This can be hard, because it means swallowing our pride, and possibly hindering our own success in the short term so that we can have continued success in the long term. I’m no saint when it comes to this type of thing myself, but, before you appeal that grade that looks a little lower than you’d like, maybe take a pause to consider if it’s not truly the grade you deserve for what you submitted. The benefit of doing so is that, when you finally do walk across that stage, you’ll know you deserve it.

Beyond those, however, this issue also brings us the second part of our Meeting the Minds feature with Dr. Tony Simmons, where he looks at the value of humour in teaching students, and talks about some fascinating encounters he had with pillars of academia in sociology. We also take a look at preparing for your thesis defense. This is especially appropriate if you are one of those students looking at your degree as something beyond a way to improve your employment prospects.

Plus, of course, our selection of news, interviews, advice, reviews, and general entertainment to keep you amused when you’re taking a needed study break to clear your head.

Enjoy the read!

P.S. If you didn’t already know, The Voice Magazine has a Facebook page and a twitter feed if You’re into that kind of thing!