A Mixed Message – AU’s Comprehensive Institutional Plan

On November 25th, the Board of Governors at Athabasca University released its latest Comprehensive Institutional Plan (CIP). This document will guide the direction of the university for the next three years and clarifies its vision for long term sustainability. It outlines the strengths of AU but also provides a picture of the current and future challenges that it will need to overcome. Its release comes shortly after the appointment of new AU president Dr. Neil Fassina. Generally optimistic in tone, the report outlines some serious concerns and some possible solutions, but it remains to be seen what will come of it.

AU is unique among Canadian universities because it was the first institution in Canada to provide instruction solely by an open and distance format. AU strives to live up to its original mandate, which is to remove barriers to undergraduate and graduate education. In its model, it seeks to encompass students who are impeded from obtaining post-secondary education by disabilities, geographic location, or other obstacles. The report notes that AU has become a leader in reaching out to Canadian indigenous communities and takes pride in having a high quality of academic research as it embraces innovation and new ideas. The report also notes that AU is very responsive to adapting to a learning landscape that is evolving and changing quickly.

But despite these self-congratulatory pats on the back, a very real concern for the university’s long term sustainability remains. The report cautions that AU is headed toward financial insolvency in the next three years if changes are not made. This is due to several interconnecting factors.

The report provides details of the 2016 budget which caused ripples of alarm through the AU community and beyond. It outlines what led up to the most recent troubled financial situation. “AU was prepared to submit a 2016-17 budget in accordance with the usual schedule before the end of fiscal 2015-16 but was asked by government not to do so because of circumstances prevailing at the time. At that time, AU projected a deficit budget of $2.4 million and [Alberta’s Advanced Education] Minister Schmidt was reflecting on his response to growing concern and controversy about AU’s sustainability, documented in the report of the Presidential Task Force on Sustainability, submitted to the ministry on June 1, 2015. In his letter of March 22, 2016, the minister outlined his response and directed a third-party assisted review of the university’s sustainability within the context of certain parameters outlined in that correspondence.”

AU’s largest strength, which is operating without a physical campus (although it has an operations headquarters based in the town of Athabasca as well as secondary offices in Calgary and Edmonton), also leaves it at a huge disadvantage compared to other post-secondary institutions.

The report notes that the largest expense for AU, in the absence of a bricks and mortar campus, comprises staff and faculty wages and benefits. AU’s distance learning model and lack of campus means that it is unable to raise revenue through ancillary means, such as renting out student housing during the off-season or hosting conferences and sports tournaments. The primary way that AU raises revenue is through student tuition and fees, but even this is constrained by external factors. AU’s reliance on student tuition has increased from approximately 17% of its operating costs to 61% over the past 30 years. AU cannot, however, increase tuition and fees since they are regulated by the provincial government and have been frozen for two years.

A larger concern regarding AU’s financial future, however, is that the current funding model for post-secondary education in Alberta only provides government funding for Alberta-based students. This affects AU more than other post-secondary institutions because the greatest proportion of its student body is based outside Alberta. The Alberta provincial government has not changed its policy to address the current inequitable funding framework. The report summarizes its situation in saying that “there are significant cost pressures for AU. In the 2017-18 and 2018-19 fiscal years, AU is projecting escalating deficits of $6.8 million and $9.1 million respectively.” These numbers are alarming, and are mainly attributable to the Alberta Advanced Education Ministry’s request that there be no job losses in the quest to balance AU’s books, a condition which prohibits the implementation of strategic changes that would result in long-term sustainability.

To make a long story short, the report says that “given these constraints, AU will be financially insolvent by 2017-18.”

This is a dire prediction, and while there is an underlying feeling within the report of “don’t panic”, reading this statement generates huge cause for alarm. So, what can Athabasca University do to make sure this prediction doesn’t come true?

Financial insolvency is a last resort. The report outlines several recommendations and strategic plans to prevent this happening. One possible route though the budget muddle is to increase tuition, especially for out of province or graduate students. However, AU admits that it is hesitant to do this because of fears that students will simply choose to study elsewhere, especially now that several other Canadian universities are expanding their online-based course and program offerings that compete with AU. Another option is that it can choose to offer a greater variety of courses and programs, especially at the more profitable graduate level. Or, it can seek to forge new partnerships with both the private sector and government agencies to attract more learners. But AU is also calling on the Alberta government to fund the deficit and allow more time to explore the external sustainability review. The preferred option is for the Alberta government to modify the way it funds post-secondary education in the province, so that AU isn’t penalized.

Despite these dire warnings, the report emphasizes optimism. It frequently uses terms like “growth” and “vision.” It cites AU’s successes such as the recent addition of the Business of Hockey Institute and revamping its Business and Management programs. The report also mentions the development of Master of Science in Environmental Science and the Doctor of Philosophy in Computing and Information Systems as a priority for the near future. AU asserts that it seeks to build on its reputation as a centre of research excellence and its history of innovative learning to take it into the future. However, this will not be an easy task when the general climate for post-secondary education is increasingly competitive, both in Canada and in Alberta. AU is the plucky underdog among post-secondary schools. It has weathered many bouts of economic hardship since it was created in 1970 and responded to changes in the post-secondary environment; evolving to serve a real need among its students and serving those who are what it calls “dispersed learners”: those who are often unable to pursue their education by other means. AU emphasizes that it will continue to develop and renew partnerships with corporations, professional associations, and other entities that promote and facilitate access to learning. The report asserts that AU’s online learning platform, coupled with its flexible learning timetables, are well-suited to meeting to the needs of this adult learner population.

But this brings it all back to AU students. A major point of criticism toward the Board of Governors and AU Administration is that since the news emerged of AU’s financial difficulties, there has been minimal forthright communication and consultation first with its current student body. This report was released quietly and if students did not know where to look, it is likely that they wouldn’t even know it exists. Students of Athabasca University often hear about AU-related news through external news sites rather than an internal source. Several of these news reports have been critical of AU and have predicted that its demise was imminent. This report, while it has given students an insight into the issues of AU, does not give reassurance that their university is not threatened by closure. Students will end up feeling vulnerable rather than reassured, unless they are involved in having a say in what happens.

The Voice contacted the Alberta Education Ministry for a statement regarding this report, but as of press time, Minister Marlin Schmidt has not yet responded. The Voice also contacted AUSU and President Shawna Wasylyshyn, who gave following statement: “Overall, AUSU supported the plan. Like all AU stakeholders, we are concerned about AU sustainability. While AU’s financial problems have yet to be solved, I was pleased to see that the CIP didn’t propose cuts to student services or dramatic increases in fees for out-of-province tuition [that were] proposed in [an] attempt to reduce the deficit. I would rather see a financial picture laid out that shows what funding AU will need in order to continue to offer current programs and services to students; I believe that is what this CIP does. The big question remains – what will the Alberta Government do? We have received assurance and commitment from the Minister of Advanced Education but so far, there hasn’t been any money behind it.”

In the three year term that this capital plan encompasses, It will be up to Dr. Fassina, in conjunction with the Board of Governors, to decide what direction that AU will take. But they would be wise to keep in mind that if students are indeed at the heart of AU, because they provide the main revenue to keep it going?as this report recognizes?then the very least the administration can do is give students a bit more openness in reporting to them what is going on.

The full report can be found at http://www.athabascau.ca/aboutau/documents/cip/2016-19.pdf and if students have any questions or concerns, they are invited to contact AUSU.

Carla Knipe is completing her BA in English. She can be reached on Twitter @LunchBuster.

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