The much-anticipated report of the Third Party Review of Athabasca University has been released at an event on the university’s main campus in the northern Alberta town. Today also marks the beginning of the annual convocation ceremonies, marking the completion of the educational careers of many of the university’s students.
The university’s Board Chair sees the timing as auspicious.
“Dr. Coates’ report has re-affirmed the importance of the university’s core mission to be open to all students regardless of where they live or their place in society,” says Vivian Manasc. “And it challenges the government and the university to work together to support the future of distance learning. The university administration and president will have the board’s full support as they implement the recommendations in the report.”
The report was commissioned by the Alberta government and the university’s Board of Governors amid concerns about the university’s short-term financial situation and long-term viability. The report’s author was tasked with, among other things, deciding on what role Athabasca University should play within Alberta’s post-secondary education system. The review, says Dr. Coates in a letter accompanying the report, was timely.
“There is a greater desire within the AU community to get out from under the current weight of uncertainty, public contemplation of AU’s future and the routine and open debate about the institutions finances.”
Dr. Coates has been working on the report since January, and he noted a high level of enthusiasm and support for the university among students, alumni and employees. And he was especially appreciative of the candour expressed by all as they offered “literally hundreds” of suggestions to help the university chart a new way forward. Coates was also careful to note the support for the university from the Government of Alberta, something echoed at today’s event by the Hon. Marlin Schmidt, Minister of Advanced Education.
“Our government will continue to work with Athabasca University as it improves operations, supports students, and builds partnerships with northern and Indigenous communities. We are pleased with the recommendations and look forward to the practical changes the university will be pursuing in order to support students across Alberta and strengthen our post-secondary system as a whole,” said Marlin Schmidt, Minister of Advanced Education.
The report calls on the university to make a number of changes, including updating its Information Technology systems, refine its service delivery to students, review and update its program and course offerings to meet emerging demands, and to work more closely with Indigenous peoples and existing northern Alberta colleges to address the unmet needs of First Nations and Métis learners in the province. And it makes clear that the university must re-dedicate itself to its core principle of open access, even expanding its role in serving under-represented population group in the Canadian post-secondary education system.
The report also looks at the university’s role in the town of Athabasca, noting that its location poses a number of challenges, mainly financial and staffing-related, while offering a unique opportunity for the university and the government. The report notes the importance of the university to the region’s economy and calls for both an adjustment of its workforce and an enhancement of its presence in the town.
It calls for the university to “…better address northern educational needs, capitalize on underdeveloped opportunities, and position AU as a leading presence in teaching and research related to the provincial North. As an outcome of this activity, AU should be able to maintain if not expand the size of its operation in the Town of Athabasca and in northern Alberta generally.”
The report also calls for the Alberta government to commit to supporting the university, and providing sufficient funding to see it through a two-year planning and re-structuring phase. It notes that the university is currently the lowest-funded of all Alberta post-secondary institutions, and that upgrades to its IT infrastructure and overall rebuilding effort are necessary.
Tasked with implementing the recommendations of the report is the university’s relatively new president, Dr. Neil Fassina. He calls today’s event a ‘turning point’ for the university while acknowledging that there is a lot of work ahead, and a short time to get it done.
“The strongest statement in the report is that the future is in our hands,” says Fassina. “It’s out opportunity to seize the future. Timelines are tight, and some are very soon, but I’m confident we will succeed and exceed expectations.”
The president exudes confidence in the university’s workforce when he talks about the changes to come, and he’s grateful for the continued support of AU’s student body. Fassina, who also has the full support of the university’s Board, says planning to implement the report’s recommendations will start “immediately”. Or, just as soon as he’s done welcoming AU’s latest crop of graduates walking proudly across the stage to accept their degrees. He is, after all, the one who will be greeting each one and handing them their parchments marking their latest educational accomplishments.
Dr. Ken Coates’ report of the Independent Third Party Review of Athabasca University is available here.