The End of AU?

Athabasca University has taken It’s 2015-2016 proposed budget to the General Faculties Council for review and explanation. I say explanation because That’s something this budget really needs.

Do you remember not long ago, just last year, in fact, when reports were coming out that AU was going to be facing insolvency? But our interim President, Peter MacKinnon came out to reassure us that “Athabasca University is not going to close down, but Athabasca University will have to do some business differently in the future.” It turns out that what he meant by doing business differently is that AU would have to fire a lot of people. I conclude this because of the statement on page 2 of the budget that reads “The major constraint facing this budget is the government directive prohibiting job losses.”

This strikes me as a huge admission of failure on the part of the Board of Governors and the top level administration of the university. Because even though the budget itself shows growing enrolment of 1.3% total, and that includes a slight decline in out-of-province students (which AU isn’t funded for anyway), for that to require job losses indicates there was some sort of failure to plan for sustainability. Because the responsibility for both hirings and wage negotiations ultimately falls to the Board of Governors, and when the Board itself is saying it can’t afford the people and wages that it approved, you have to wonder exactly what, or perhaps if, they were thinking at the time they approved these things.

Now, in fairness, a portion of the blame for this should also be laid at the feet of the former Alberta Government, which announced loud and long that there would be increased funding for universities, and was assuring AU that they could rely on this 2% increased funding in their plans right up until then Minister Thomas Lukaszuk announced there would be a 7.2% funding cut instead. But that was almost three years ago.

There are already some who have suggested this might be a “scare” budget. Something drafted to attempt to shock the government into changing the funding model to recognize at least one of Athabasca University’s unique features: that the bulk of our students are out of province and so AU receives no provincial funding for them, or that, unlike traditional universities, our information technology systems are our capital. Where other universities get allocations of money to build and maintain buildings that they serve their students in, AU needs money to build and maintain It’s hardware and software to serve its students through. Unfortunately, not many politicians get that enthused about having their name on a new server.

In support of this is the idea that they’ve low-balled certain income numbers, such as predicting a 0% growth in graduate student enrolments, even though the year before saw growth of 7.6%, and predicting an equal 0% growth in the amount of donations and other grants AU will receive. (As an aside, I have to wonder what kind of strong-arming must have been involved to get the VP of Advancement to agree to putting out a budget that shows next to no growth in either donations or enrolment. Or, if the projections are real, what purpose the Office of Advancement serves, given that the VP alone is making over a quarter million dollars.) And a newly proposed comprehensive institutional plan (at the same link as the budget, at the bottom) that explicitly lays out the case for AU needing its information and computing technology to be thought of the same as buildings for other universities, and so eligible for that kind of funding.

Unfortunately, if That’s the case, then the introduction to the budget, that proposes the only solution to the problem as a reduction in staffing costs, does not help at all. That is, unless the goal of the document is to make it appear that the board is short-sighted and so allow the Minister who finds the obvious answer, laid out neatly in the Institutional Plan, to feel like a hero. Now that would be a masterful bit of politics, if I believed for a moment that a majority of the board members would be willing to put their own reputations on the line to help AU.

But getting away from the politics, what does this mean for us as students? Mostly, a big load of not much. The government has made repeated and public assurances that AU will not be allowed to fold. So it would be PR disaster of monumental proportions now if it did, and That’s not even thinking about the traditional voter base of the NDP who would likely start to question whether the Notley government represents their ideals if any public post-secondary institution was allowed to close, or the always ready-to-pounce opposition, who, no doubt, would portray the closure of AU as an attack on rural students who are unable or unwilling to move to an NDP friendly urban area for their studies.

The worst case scenario is that the Board of Governors gets to do what it supposedly wants, and cuts staffing, something which would likely mean a reduction in service levels to students, or at very least, to the morale of those left working for the university. However, our degrees will be safe, our course options might become slightly more limited, but students will not be left in the cold. Regardless of the financial situation, Athabasca University still has full accreditation in both the US and Canada. The government simply can’t afford to allow that to disappear. Phew.

Meanwhile, here at The Voice Magazine, this week’s issue brings you a look at the new library orientation videos, pointing out which ones have the information you need so you can get it fast and get back to your work.

Also this week, when is a big word too much? I know that as a student, especially when I’m not 100% sure of what I’m talking about, there is a temptation to use large, complex words to make my writing seem more confident. This week, The Study Dude takes a break from interviews to look at that practice, and give us some advice on how, and why, we might avoid doing that. And while we’re on the topic of writing, The Writer’s Toolbox opens up a parenthetical discussion, and Deanna Roney looks at the transition between writing for her courses and, having graduated, writing for herself.

Our feature is the second part of our examination of History 338: History of the Canadian West. I’ll be honest, history courses have never interested me. That’s what the web is for, after all, right? But Dr. Eric Strikwerda points out the difference between what I think of what must be in a history course (what he calls an antiquarian view) and what his course actually is, and I’m wondering if perhaps I wasn’t a bit too hasty in my judgement.

We round that out with a new Fly on the Wall, one that compares an AU education to a life on a deserted island, and of course our selection of interviews, music reviews, advice, and other entertainment that students are sending in, keeping you connected to the community.

So, 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!