The Way Forward – AU’s Third Party Review Recommendations

Last week, in “Reviewing AU’s Third-Party Review,” we gave readers an overview of the recent Final Report of the Independent Third-Party Review of Athabasca University. This week we focus on the Action Plan?with its fifteen recommendations?put forward in the report.

The action plan sketched out in The Independent Third-Party Review of Athabasca University comprises fewer than ten pages of the report. This brevity should not be taken to suggest the way forward is simple. Rather, report author Dr Ken Coates uses the action plan’s pages to concisely state what the report has been building up to in the previous thirty pages. To even to begin to understand each action plan point, outlined below, one must take the time to read the report in its entirety.

Take Action on the 2017-18 AU Budget. Bring “expenditures in line with resources” states the obvious, but the report goes further to say expenditure reductions should be consistent with the review’s aims. Significantly for students, “tuition and fee increases” are mentioned, “particularly those that bring AU more in line with general Alberta practice.” Revenue opportunities are identified, including AU providing more continuing education and professional development offerings. The report also encourages AU to recruit more international students, noting that demand is high.

Clarify the Meaning of and Commitment to AU’s Roles as an Open University. The report suggests the “development of an AU profile that aligns with the university’s commitment to be truly open and accessible.” This process involves AU, its faculty, staff, and the Board of Governors.

Re-engage the Academy. A symposium attended by AU’s entire university community and leading scholars of online education is proposed, in order to address the question, “What is the future of online and distance-delivered education?”

Review Programs. A comprehensive review of current and potential AU courses and programs to test their viability is recommended. This includes identifying areas of potential expansion, as well as areas of potential trimming. Potential expansion areas include developing education and training programs based on needs of, for example, Alberta employers and new Canadians. “AU is in a strong position to dramatically expand and change its programs and services”, the report states.

Align Professional and Union Agreements with the New AU Institutional Plan. The report recommends AU, “over the current negotiation cycle” work with its employee’s unions and professional associations to ensure contracts are aligned with the revised business plan.

Re-assert Leadership in Educational Innovation. An initiative is proposed to “create a university centre for educational innovation” to address such areas as educational development, emerging educational technologies, and related research and instruction. The report notes, with increasing competition from other online universities, AU no longer holds a place of leadership in the field.

Create a New Model for Educational Engagement with Indigenous Communities. The report recommends AU work with Indigenous educational institutions and other stakeholders in Indigenous education, to “reimagine” post-secondary education for Indigenous peoples.

Re-engage with Collaborating Northern Alberta Institutions. The report recommends AU seek a “basic collaboration agreement” with Northern Alberta colleges. The goal is coordination among institutions to provide “programming designed to meet the needs of northern students and communities.”

Re-engage with the Town of Athabasca and Northern Alberta. This is one of the action plan’s most lengthy recommendations and appears designed to achieve a win-win outcome for both AU and the Town of Athabasca. As a consequence of addressing northern educational needs, including creating a Northern Alberta Research Unit, the reports suggests AU “should be able to maintain if not expand the size of its operation” in Athabasca.

Align AU Facilities with the Academic Mission. Based on strategies developed by this action plan, the report suggests AU re-shuffle the location of some departments. For example, the report suggests the office of AU’s president is likely better placed in Edmonton.

Redevelop ICT Infrastructure. The report, noting “serious deficiencies” in information and communication technology (ICT) systems at AU, recommends a plan for the “redevelopment of its information and communication technology infrastructure and services.” This redevelopment plan will require “substantial investment” from Alberta’s government.

Redefine Service Delivery and the “Customer Experience”. The report recommends AU produce a “plan to define the institutional plan for student services.” The report states AU’s approaches on many academic and administrative services are “conflicting”, and students find them “complex and confusing.”

Connect Research Activities with the Institutional Mandate and Mission. The report suggests maintaining a “selective research presence” aligned with AU’s institutional priorities. A revised research strategy could include innovation in online course delivery from Kindergarten through post-secondary, the social impact of technological change, and a focus on Northern Alberta.

Commit as an Institution to AU’s Transformation. Given the long-standing nature of AU’s financial problems and the tight timelines laid out in the action plan, the report suggests AU collaborate with its key heads to get all on board with the “urgent need for renewal.”

Demonstrate the Government of Alberta’s Commitment to AU’s Future. The report recommends AU, its Governors, and the Alberta Government announce together their commitment to AU’s renewal, along with assurances to students they can complete their programs in progress, no matter what happens at AU. The Alberta government is also to commit to some funding to cover the “incremental expenses associated with the accelerated and complex planning processes required to complete the rethinking of university operations.” The report stresses commitment must come from both AU (to refocus efforts and demonstrate renewed commitment to global leadership) and the Government of Alberta (in the form of “cautious reinvestment”.)

Indeed, funding will be a key element of AU’s renewal under this plan. Since several of the action plan items serve to improve the educational landscape in Alberta far beyond Athabasca University’s campus, the Government of Alberta will need make sure the broader scope is matched by broader funding.

Despite the report’s abundant ideas and optimistic tone, the way forward is not going to be a picnic. The long-term gain achievable through the 15-point action plan will necessitate some short-term pain while the university scrambles to put plan into action.

Last week’s article quoted Leonard Bernstein: “To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan, and not quite enough time.” To that I would add a vital element: willingness. For AU to achieve great things now will require everyone in the AU community?and Alberta’s Department of Advanced Education?to be pulling together and in the same direction.

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

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