Reviewing AU’s Third Party Review

“To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan, and not quite enough time.” – Leonard Bernstein, American conductor, composer, and pianist (1918-1990).

If Leonard Bernstein, quoted above, is correct, then AU is destined to achieve great things. Last week, AU made public the Independent Third-Party Review of Athabasca University. The report, compiled by Dr. Ken Coates of Coates Holroyd Consulting, was delivered to AU on May 1, 2017. AU spent weeks poring over the report before releasing it to the public June 8.

The delay in the report’s public release is not surprising. At 74 pages, including appendices, It’s a lot to digest. However, for anybody with a stake in AU’s future?and that includes students?the report is worthwhile reading. Although the tone is one of optimism for the future of AU, the work required to bring AU into that future is daunting.

While performing the third-party review earlier this year, Coates spoke with AU’s community, including administrators, faculty, staff, students, alumni, and external stakeholders: Alberta’s Department of Advanced Education, other Alberta post-secondary institutions, professional associations, and representatives of the Town of Athabasca. In his report, Coates writes that AU’s president, Neil Fassina was “open, collaborative, and supportive.” Coates writes of being “astonished and pleased by the responsiveness of the students, alumni, faculty, and staff of the university.” Sprinkled throughout the report are direct quotations from AU students, alumni, staff, and faculty members.

The report notes that, among AU and its stakeholders, “there is considerable appetite for constructive change.” That’s good, because Coates also admonishes, “change is necessary.” The AU community, Coates advises, would like to “get out from under the current weight of uncertainty.”

Student feedback, Coates notes, indicates that most found AU through word of mouth, and not through AU marketing efforts. Many of AU’s students commented that AU allowed them to achieve educational and career opportunities not otherwise attainable. However, some students express concern that AU’s perceived troubled status undermines their credentials.

Coates’s report identifies the myriad challenges currently facing Athabasca, including in the areas of information technology, public reputation, instructional models, and program structure. The current AU business model, the report bluntly states, “is not financially sustainable and will not support the institution in the coming decades.”

Coates’s report intentionally does not focus on the circumstances which led to AU’s current precarious position. Instead, the report chooses to concentrate on the way forward and the opportunities available to help AU thrive. The report states that, given “significant changes” to AU’s “structure, approach, and program mix”, the institution has the potential to be “viable, sustainable, and highly-relevant.” The target, Coates says, is for AU to “flourish” and not merely sustain itself.

But the way forward is not going to be easy, judging by the timelines Coates lays out in the report. Coates concedes the proposed action plan is “aggressive.” Under the action plan contained in the report, AU has just one year to re-imagine and re-invent itself for the future.

Alberta’s provincial government will need to play a key role in AU’s success. The report states that the cooperation of the government is vital. Alberta must work with AU to ensure it has appropriate funding, as well as additional consideration for the provincial government’s insistence that AU be located in Athabasca. The report also suggests that AU seek additional monies from the government of Alberta to help with additional costs associated with the review and restructuring.

AU, Coates points out, “is a real asset for the Province of Alberta” but requires “strong and sustained support” from the province to meet its objectives.

While the third-party report is a milestone on the way to a stronger AU, the institution now needs to roll up its collective sleeves and do the work to make Coates’s vision happen. AU’s future, the report states, “rests in the hands of the Board of Governors, the President, the collegial processes within the institution, and the faculty, staff, and students.”

Not clear in the report is what AU’s students can do to influence AU’s future, except keep calm and study on.

Next week, we’ll take a close look the report’s recommendations for AU, which include a 15-point action plan and an ambitious timeline.

Barbara Lehtiniemi is a writer, photographer, and AU student. She lives on a windswept rural road in Eastern Ontario.