What can past history tell us about the Athabasca University ‘crisis’?

June 30, 2015 Tony Bates
Any merger needs to resolve incompatible union collective agreements

Any merger needs to resolve incompatible union collective agreements

It’s not just the Greeks who are having problems financially, even though they are getting all the headlines. In earlier posts I commented on Athabasca University’s so-called impending ‘insolvency’, as the president put it. As with all crises, the actual ‘end’ is never certain until it happens, so perhaps there’s still time for the Alberta government and Athabasca University to learn from history.

Questions from Wayne Burnett

Wayne Burnett, one of readers of this post, has asked some pretty good questions about what we can learn from the past that might help Athabasca in its current struggles. I originally replied to his comment with another comment, but feel the discussion needs a post of its own.

Wayne asked:

I would be interested in your comments (or the observations of your readers) on:

  1. What makes AU unique, from a student perspective? That’s the best argument for increased government support. What is it that students get from AU that they cannot get from the online initiatives at bricks and mortar universities?
  2. What has been the experience as BCOU was merged into TRU? Did the student experience change? Were there cost savings?
  3.  I don’t see the Feds getting involved (as they would be asked to help out TRU, Télé-université, and maybe others) but is there a possibility of seeking an arrangement with Saskatchewan and Manitoba, given that there is already some co-operation in higher education in the Western provinces? Does the UKOU get funding from the Scotland and Northern Ireland governments?

Cheers, Wayne

My response

Great questions, Wayne. Fancy a job as President at AU?!

I’ll do my best to provide a personal answer to Wayne’s questions, but each one is probably better answered by others.

1. What makes AU unique, from a student perspective?

This is a question for the Board and senior administration at Athabasca and it’s negligent to the point of irresponsible that they have not come out with a vision statement that sets this out clearly for government and for their own staff.

It isn’t actually hard to do, either.

  1. The first answer is that AU provides open access, enabling those who do not have the necessary qualifications for conventional universities to attempt higher level studies.
  2. Alberta needs more trained and qualified workers and has been depending on immigrants from outside Alberta, who need opportunities for continuing and higher education but do not have the qualifications for entry to conventional universities and cannot study full-time.
  3. Alberta also has a large and fast growing aboriginal population that is under-educated and desperately needs alternative routes to post-secondary education.
  4. None of the conventional universities in Alberta offer full undergraduate degrees at a distance, and there are very few fully online post-graduate degrees from the other universities.

I could go on, but AU needs not only to state that these are its main target groups, because they are under-served by the conventional institutions, but also has a plan of action for meeting these needs, which would require some substantial changes to the current curriculum and program offerings, for instance.

2. What has been the experience as BCOU was merged into TRU?

Again, this is best answered by former BCOU students and possibly by the OL division at TRU, but here’s my two cents worth.

Initially, it was pretty disastrous for most BCOU students. The BC government had no plan for the 16,000 or so students enrolled in the BCOU through the Open Learning Agency when they closed the OLA in 2003. They tried to get BCIT to take it on (OLA’s campus/building was near to the BCIT campus), but because of the unique union agreements for part-time BCOU faculty/tutors, BCIT did not want to touch it, nor did SFU.

This resulted in a period of nearly seven years when these 16,000 students were in limbo, until eventually TRU was forced or decided to take on these students. Again, however, because of the union agreements for BCOU part-time staff, because TRU had recently been changed from a college to a university, and because the ‘open’ students received less grant from government than the on-campus students, many of the campus faculty and administration were hostile to, or reluctant to acknowledge the validity of, ‘open’ or distance learning.

As a result TRU has to this day maintained strict apartheid between the campus and the open parts of its operation. Although in recent years the atmosphere has improved considerably, and a new administration is now much more supportive of the OL division, 12 years on, enrolments in the TRU OL division are just getting back to where they were when BCOU was closed down.

Perhaps more importantly, like AU, the OL division has not had the funds or the institutional commitment to make the major changes in its teaching model needed as a result of developments in online learning. However, if there are any BCOU students reading this, please let us have your views on this.

3. Is there a possibility of seeking an arrangement with Saskatchewan and Manitoba?

Well, there is already a co-operative of Canadian universities called the Canadian Virtual University, which includes the University of Manitoba, and Thompson Rivers University (TRU) in British Columbia (as well, as, interestingly, Mount Royal University in Alberta). There is automatic transfer of credits between Alberta and BC post-secondary institutions already (I actually went to an announcement about this by the then BC Minister of Advanced Education when embarrassingly he referred to Athabasca University as BC’s new open university, much to the chagrin of the TRU delegation.) So there are already opportunities for economies of scale by sharing courses from other institutions. The issue is whether this has been fully exploited at Athabasca, by using courses from other institutions rather than providing a complete program from within AU. I’m not in a position to answer that question.

The issue though isn’t so much about Saskatchewan or Manitoba, since the overall numbers of potential AU students from either province is likely to be low, but Ontario. Currently Ontario students make up 40 per cent of AU’s enrolments. What’s not clear is how much this will change now that the Council of Ontario Universities has established its own ‘Ontario Online.’

Although this will result in more online courses available from Ontario universities, it does not necessarily guarantee fully online programs. Even more importantly, Ontario Online still requires students to meet the qualifications for entry to Ontario universities before students can take their online courses. However, don’t expect Ontario to give money to Alberta to support Ontario students who want access to Athabasca.

What the Federal government could do, though, is to offer student aid to lifelong learners without a degree wanting to take further online qualifications from recognised institutions anywhere in Canada , which would then enable these Ontario students to be supported at Athabasca, as could students from all over Canada. Since there’s an election coming and none of the parties has stated its higher education policy yet……

4. Does the UKOU get funding from the Scotland and Northern Ireland governments [as well as from the government of England and Wales]? 

Sorry, I don’t know the answer to this question. Can anyone from the UKOU help with this? (My cynical answer would be that it’s equal treatment from all three governments: no funding at all, these days.)

What lessons can be drawn?

Here’s what I take away from this situation, although I’m sure readers will draw other conclusions:

1. No unique/non-conventional institution can survive without:

  • being clear about what makes it unique, and continuously identifying its uniqueness in changing circumstances;
  • having a clear strategy and plans to meet that unique mandate;
  • being nimble enough to adapt rapidly to changing external factors, without losing its unique advantages.

2. Closing or even merging a unique institution will usually leave a large gap in educational provision, and students enrolled in such a unique institution will suffer as a result of such closures or mergers, no matter how much a government may wriggle to mitigate such effects. Any re-organisation or merger must resolve incompatible union agreements to stand a chance of future success.

3. Although I didn’t discuss this explicitly with regards to the closure of the OLA, good leadership of unique institutions is even more important than for conventional institutions; it is essential that the leadership of such institutions wins and maintains the trust and confidence of government, and that requires constant attention and communication of the unique role and value of the institution. Once that trust is lost, it is almost impossible to regain, especially if its uniqueness is fading or under challenge.

4. Open and distance learning transcend provincial, state or even national boundaries. It is counter-productive to try to limit open and distance education to just state or provincial boundaries. Government and institutions need to develop business strategies that support and enable cross-state and cross-provincial activities in open and distance learning, for instance, through:

  • two-tier fee systems,
  • collaborative programming such as the CVU,
  • self-financing through tuition fees.

4. Nevertheless, in a provincial post-secondary education system such as Canada’s, it is in reality impossible to get financial support from other provincial governments for residents taking courses from an institution in another province. However, Federal policies regarding student financial aid could help institutions with a student enrolment footprint larger than their province. The Federal government should have a strategy for supporting lifelong learning, for economic reasons alone, and Federal student financial aid should support such a cross-provincial strategy.

So, Wayne, yes, there are lessons to be learned from the past here, but it would be extraordinary in Canadian higher education if these lessons ever get applied to rational decision-making.

Over to you

I’d love to hear from BCOU students, AU students, or open learning faculty/tutors at TRU about this:

  • What would you recommend to the Alberta government and/or Athabasca University, from your experience?
  • Most of all, what advice would you give to current or potential AU students?

 

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