Advice to the Alberta government on Athabasca University’s sustainability report

June 12, 2015 Tony Bates

AU sustainability report 2

McKinnon, P. at al. (2015) The Future is Now: Report of the Presidential Task Force on Sustainability Athabasca AB: Athabasca University

The university kindly provided me with a pdf copy of the report, and an online version of the full report is available by clicking on the title above (thanks, Colin Madland). (For shorthand, AU in this post refers to Athabasca University, NOT the University of Alberta).

So I have now read the report in full. I have had some lengthy comments from several AU faculty about the report and my previous blog post, and have had a chance also to read some of the press comment. I have also had a very challenging e-mail from a student, wanting to know whether they should still be considering Athabasca University as part of their learning plans. I will deal with this question in a separate post. Here I want to focus on the report itself.

Who is the report for and what is it trying to achieve?

I think I would need to be a fly on the wall during the AU’s Board meetings to really answer those questions with authority, but it is a critical question, since there are so many stakeholders involved (Government, Board, faculty, staff, students, local politicians and the local communities that support and are supported by the university). However, the report itself offers this:

the task force was directed to report on options to the Government of Alberta and the university community…

However, considering that the university’s Board and administration has been struggling with the issue of funding and sustainability for some time, and has responsibility and at least some control over internal matters, the real target of this report is most likely the provincial government, and the main goal is to get more operating funding from the government. If it is not the main goal, that is what it should be.

However, another interpretation could be that the university administration has been unsuccessful in its attempts to change the culture of the university, negotiate sensible collective agreements, or get more money from government, so it is trying to scare the bejeezus out of its faculty and staff into believing that unless they change, the end is nigh.

Of course, both of these motivations for the report could be possible.

What does the report actually say?

The basic message is that the university will go bust in two years time, and to avoid that possibility it suggests four possible strategies:

  • drop out-of-province students and focus only on Albertans
  • become more efficient and effective
  • federation with another Alberta institution
  • join with other open institutions across Canada and beyond, within a national strategy of open and distance learning.

See my earlier post for more on this.

What do I agree with in the report?

Although the case that the university is financially unsustainable is not actually made in the report, I think most people other than really entrenched faculty recognise that the university cannot continue as it has been doing over the past few years. It almost certainly needs more money from the provincial government, just to serve the citizens of Alberta, never mind the majority of its students that come from across Canada. It also needs to make some fundamental changes internally to ensure that it is fit for teaching in a digital age, which will need substantial capital investment and cultural change from within.

The report also makes another important point:

What is lacking in both a provincial and national context is a substantive and strategic framework that advances Alberta’s and Canada’s place in online learning and Athabasca University’s place within it.

Also, reading some of the media coverage of the report, it is clear that many associated with the university are in a deep state of denial about the seriousness of the situation at AU. I think the Board and the university leadership are right to indicate that the university is facing an existential crisis, although mainly for reasons that are not addressed in the report (see below).

What is wrong with the report

I hardly know where to begin, but let’s start with the obvious:

1. A lack of vision for the future

There may be a lack of a provincial or national strategy for online or open learning, but successful institutions create their own future, and on the way, change the environment around them. What is really lacking from this report is a clear vision of what AU wants to be in the future, and how that vision would fit with the rest of the Albertan (and national and international) online and open education world.

There is nothing in this report on sustainability beyond the usual platitudes about widening access that suggests why the university is worth sustaining. In particular what is the added value that AU can or should be offering to the Alberta post-secondary system? There are good answers to these questions but they do not seem to be coming from the university management. Yet this is critical for the long-term sustainability of the university.

The reason for this appears to me to be that no-one in the senior administration really understands what business it is in. This is not, nor should it be, a conventional university. It should be addressing issues of access (particularly for aboriginals, lifelong learners and immigrants in Alberta), being an innovator in teaching and learning, and setting standards for quality delivery of online, open and distance education. It should be negotiating its role viz-viz what the conventional institutions are planning for online and open education, and what it will do and what they will do. Where is the vision, and the strategy for implementing the vision?

2. A viable financial plan

I find it almost incredible that if the main goal is to get more money from government, the report does not offer a detailed analysis of what the problem is, financially, and how it could be solved, in terms of operating and capital dollars. The only specific ask is for $38 million for investment in IT infrastructure. No doubt there are other documents that have gone to government with this information, but surely a summary of the actual financial data that shows why there is a financial crisis looming is needed, if only to convince or persuade the university community.

Even given the dire state of government finances in Alberta at the moment, its operational funding problem is probably easily fixable in terms of the total size of the Alberta budget, if the government can be persuaded that the university offers a valuable service. You have to wonder why AU needs so much capital investment in IT in an age of cloud computing. Too often large IT funding requests are a way to buy oneself out of bad IT management and strategies, but it may be a realistic request for all I know, and resolvable through a thorough external review.

What the report does not discuss, though, for obvious reasons, is that the university has been really badly managed over the last seven years or so (for just one example, see What’s going on at Athabasca University?), so the issue is more one of a lack of trust and confidence in the university, leading to government officials being extremely wary of throwing good money after bad. The report of course does nothing to address this key issue, instead blaming the location of the institution, bad collective agreements, and the lack of love from the provincial government. Without a serious financial plan for the future, linked to a strong vision, and better management and governance, that love is likely to continue to be lacking.

3. The proposed solutions do not solve AU’s problems

The four options are no more than window-dressing or lipstick on a pig. None of them will work without more money, at least initially. Let’s look at each one:

  • serve only Albertans: I don’t see how losing 70 per cent of your clients can help financially, unless the School of Business at AU has a revolutionary new theory of return on investment. Online and open universities have high fixed costs and low marginal costs (or should have), so they should be able to offer courses to clients outside the province at relatively low cost. The government may rightly cap tuition fees for Albertan students, but why not charge cost plus for out-of-province students? Again, where’s the business plan for AU’s future?
  • become more efficient and effective: well, why hasn’t it done that already? This sounds like every business mantra, but really reducing costs without changing your core business activities is a recipe for disaster. AU needs to move to a more effective, lighter online teaching model, but that will need more investment initially (and lower operating costs per student later), and yes, probably a change in collective agreements and will result in some redundant staff. The university should have done this years ago and now has a lot of catching up to do. Without a plan for what this new model will look like and the actual costs, though, why would government give it this extra investment, and why would the unions agree to any changes?
  • federation with another Alberta institution: how will this lead to cost savings – where’s the plan? Who would want an outdated model of distance course delivery? The only arrangement that would really save money would be to close AU, but make sure the valuable staff who have experience and knowledge of modern online teaching and open education are absorbed by the other Albertan institutions. More likely, though. all that knowledge and experience would go outside the province, so everyone would lose.
  • a multi-institutional, national federation: well, we already have one, it’s called the Canadian Virtual University, and for all its good intentions, it is relatively ineffective, because Canadian provinces don’t work collaboratively in higher education (e.g. credit transfer), and there is no national HE policy for constitutional reasons.

So what is the solution to AU’s woes?

Not my job, really, to answer this question, but here’s my two cents worth (and no, I’m retired, so don’t ask me to to do the work needed):

1. Canada needs a high-level, effective, world-leading open university/college. Despite huge increases in the capacity of conventional universities, and the adoption of online learning in conventional universities, there are still major gaps in accessibility, and lack of opportunities for online learning, especially in Alberta.

2. AU needs to develop a strong vision and strategy that identifies those gaps in access, and how it will meet them, and clarify its role viz-a-viz other Albertan universities and colleges in providing online programs.

3. AU needs a new teaching and learning plan that takes account of recent developments in teaching methods and online technologies.

4. AU needs to develop a realistic long-term business plan that will support this vision and its teaching and learning plan that it can sell to the government.

5. It is clear from the last seven years and now this report that the current Board and senior administration at AU are not up to the tasks outlined above, so the provincial government should appoint a new Board, and a new President for a minimum five year term, who has knowledge and understanding of open, online and distance learning (you don’t appoint a sea captain to fly a commercial airliner). This is urgent and needs to be done in the next few months or so. The new President should be free to put in place a senior management team of his or her choice.

6. Until a new Board and President is in place, the provincial government should maintain its current level of funding for AU, and guarantee Albertans who commence an AU degree or qualification that they will be supported in their online studies, whatever happens (i.e. if it eventually decides to close AU, the credits and programs will be transferred to a provincially recognised Albertan institution). It should then review AU’s funding within 12 months of the appointment of the President and Board, when it has received AU’s vision and business plan for the future.

I will write a separate post on advice to students considering applying to AU.

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