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Athabasca U report says 'future is now,' but it's a different future than the one its authors imagined

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Colin Piquette

Athabasca University's three-day convocation begins today, but what should be a joyous occasion for the publicly owned distance-education institution's graduates may be marred by its ongoing financial crisis, which at times resembles the proverbial slow-motion train wreck.

A "task force" struck last year by AU President Peter MacKinnon has now completed a grim and controversial report, "The Future is Now," which states bluntly -- though not necessarily persuasively -- that, "based on our most reliable assumptions, we project the likelihood of insolvency in 2016/2017."

The recommendations of the report -- not yet officially released, but unanimously endorsed by the university's Tory-appointed board of governors and sent directly to the government in Edmonton -- is, for several reasons, likely to cause one of the first serious political problems to be faced by Alberta's just-elected New Democratic Party Government. It's unlikely this will be the last time, of course, that the government of Premier Rachel Notley faces challenges dealing with the PC-appointed boards of institutions, agencies and commissions.

Certainly many in the Athabasca University community passionately dispute the conclusions of the presidential task force, which the AU Faculty Association calls the work of "a handpicked committee that deliberated in secret and presented this report as a fait accompli."

In addition to the prediction of AU's imminent insolvency, recommendations include the idea of only admitting students from Alberta and pulling all operations out of the Town of Athabasca. The report also blames the collective agreements negotiated by the university's unions -- with no mention of irresponsible management by past administrations -- for AU's current financial predicament. It demands major takeaways from employees, especially faculty members.

Appalled professors, employees and community members say the suggestion implicit in the report that the current financial situation equals insolvency is nonsense -- the university could and should continue to operate with a small deficit while a plan for a sustainable future is developed.

"Can a public university become insolvent to begin with?" asks the author of a local blog. "AU has been posting surpluses for years, which further confuses their narrative. We're not denying structural problems and major underfunding, but the insolvency narrative, the entire basis for the report, collapses under scrutiny."

Critics also say restricting students to Albertans would effectively kill an institution that now depends on tuition for 70 per cent of its operating budget, compared with 20 per cent three decades ago.

Moreover, it is hard to dispute the critics' additional argument that pulling out of Athabasca, for which there is seemingly no solid rationale in a digital age, would devastate the economy of the community of 3,000 located 145 kilometres north of Edmonton. It would also involve walking away from $100 million or so in public infrastructure and laying off as many as 400 employees.

To this reader, the report smacks of a document drafted with the anti-labour attitudes and austerian policies of the previous Progressive Conservative government in mind.

This should not come as a complete surprise. Remember, it was AU's administration that, shortly before President MacKinnon's appointment in 2013, got into hot water for spending $125,000 on lobbying in a failed attempt to wring more funding from the Progressive Conservative government of Alison Redford.

Perhaps when they came up with these ideas they were remembering the advice of the lobbyists, who did their work around the time Redford was promoting the idea of a "Bitumen Bubble" to justify slashing post-secondary budgets.

Regardless of such speculation, at the start of 2015 when MacKinnon struck the task force, the reelection of the Tories under Jim Prentice seemed like a certainty and another round of destructive post-secondary budget cuts appeared inevitable.

During the campaign for the May 5 election, Colin Piquette, NDP candidate in the riding where the university's headquarters are located and now the government's MLA for Athabasca-Sturgeon-Redwater, pledged at an all-candidates' meeting to defend AU. Then-MLA Jeff Johnson, at the time the PC minister of education, skipped the meeting -- which must have seemed to him like a good idea at the time.

The committee that drafted the report, interestingly, initially included Jason Nixon as representative of the institution's students. Nixon, former constituency association president for former Rimbey-Rocky-Mountain House-Sundre Wildrose MLA Joe Anglin, withdrew from the task force when he was elected on May 5 as the MLA for Anglin's former riding and the same conservative Opposition party. Nixon was, for a spell, president of the AU students' union and reported to be "the highest-paid student executive in Alberta."

The other members of the task force were MacKinnon himself, who served as chair, Board members Diane Davies and Marg Mrazek, Associate Professor Jane Arscott, Strategic Initiatives Director David Head, Gilbert Perras of Alberta Advanced Education and Humanities, and Social Sciences Dean Veronica Thompson.

The report concludes: "It is important that we not lose a sense of urgency. We have time, but no time to lose."

The NDP Government, however, would be well advised not to be stampeded by shrill claims and rash advice, but to ponder carefully the future of Athabasca University, founded in 1970 by Alberta's Social Credit government for a predominantly rural province, and the future of distance education in a digital age in general.

The future is now, but it sure doesn't seem like the future imagined by the task force members when they wrote their report.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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