Statement from AU President Peter Scott
Athabasca University (AU) responded to Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides’ request in the spring and delivered a draft talent management plan by the June 30 deadline.
While we requested a follow-up meeting with the minister, the university did not receive a meeting or any feedback on the plan from the minister or the ministry. On Friday, July 29, AU received a letter from the minister, along with a revised mandate and a new investment management agreement. Our executive team and members of our board of governors will review this material. We are committed to continuing to work with the ministry to find innovative ways to better meet the needs of our learners.
Watch the video statement
Good morning everyone, and thank you for joining me today. Respectfully, I acknowledge that we at Athabasca University are on, and work on, the Traditional Lands of the Indigenous Peoples (Inuit, First Nations, Métis) of Canada. We honour the ancestry, heritage, and gifts of the Indigenous Peoples and give thanks to them.
I’ve asked you all to join me today, so that I can clarify a few points and provide you with a fuller picture regarding the directives given to our board late last week by the Government of Alberta, and particularly by the Minister of Advanced Education, Demetrios Nicolaides. Now normally these matters are dealt with in discussions that aren’t public. This should be a confidential consultation between us, so we have held back from doing press but the minister has opted to put these matters in the public domain and is embracing an active media discussion.
How Athabasca University is unique
Since we have a broad group of invitees attending today, I thought it important to provide a bit of background on AU for those who may be somewhat new to who we are. AU’s unique.
As Canada’s only open and online university, we remove barriers that traditionally exclude learners from post-secondary learning due to their location, their work schedules, their family commitments, and many other challenges. We have a specialty in helping remote and rural learners across this country to access high-quality learning. And to do this, AU has always been a distance learning institution, at first connecting with the learners by mail, and later, online.
AU has never had a student campus with a conventional classroom setup and student services because we have no students in Athabasca, other than those who might be studying online in the area. We were relocated to the town of Athabasca in 1984—that’s about 150 kilometres north of Edmonton—from our then-Edmonton base, by a former provincial government. AU’s buildings there are mostly administrative offices. There’s also a library, a few lab spaces, and our Indigenous centre, Nukskahtowin.
“We have a specialty in helping remote and rural learners across this country to access high-quality learning.”– Dr. Peter Scott, president
54% of AU staff have worked remotely for over 20 years
Athabasca is a town of about 2,800 people and approximately 295, or 24%, of AU’s team members currently live and work in the area. Before the pandemic, before so many of us learned what it was like to work remotely, 54% of AU employees had already been working remotely for more than 20 years. During the pandemic, nearly all our team members were able to work remotely. We work as our 40,000 students learn—online, virtually.
Communication with the province
Just over a year ago, a lobby group in Athabasca formed, urging the government to pressure AU to insist that its Athabasca team members go back to their physical offices in the town and to increase the number of AU team members working in Athabasca.
In March of this year, the minister of Advanced Education asked AU to submit a plan by June 30 to increase its presence in Athabasca. We submitted a draft talent management plan to the minister and we asked for the opportunity to meet and discuss further, gain feedback on the draft plan. We received no opportunity to meet and no formal response until last Friday, July 29, when our board chair received a letter from the minister along with a new investment management agreement for AU.
The investment management document details the metrics for the performance-based funding we receive from the provincial government. This current fiscal year, approximately 26% of AU’s funding comes from the provincial government operating grant. The remainder comes primarily from our learners.
As many of you have heard from the comments shared by the minister in the media, the letter directs AU’s board to direct me, the president of AU, to cease the implementation of the university’s near-virtual strategy and to implement a new strategic plan that expands AU’s physical presence in the town of Athabasca by September 30.
It also directs the 7 members of AU’s executive team to work in Athabasca full time by March 31, 2025. But that is a minor headline. Requiring 7 people to work in Athabasca doesn’t make a dent in the region’s economic growth and development.
Requirement to increase staff in Athabasca
So the big headline is that AU’s new agreement stipulates that AU must increase the number of staff working in Athabasca to 65% by 2024-25. In real terms, that works out to requiring 500 team members from all over Canada to now report to physical office in Athabasca town. That’s in addition of course to the 295 AU team members who already work in the area.
This requirement is one of our funding metrics and, if not met, AU will lose a portion of government operating grant. The disruption and cost associated with relocating 500 team members and their families is significant, and it would have a huge impact on our learners’ experience and of course, our team members’ lives. It will add absolutely nothing to the university.
The new investment management agreement provided by the minister is unprecedented as it shifts AU’s priorities away from work-integrated learning and graduate outcomes that are seen in the agreements of all other Alberta post-secondary institutions in favour of rural economic development for one town in the Athabasca region. We love that town. It’s our base. But these directives are not what it needs.
AU a successful remote-work organization
The minister is essentially taking taxpayer dollars and our learners’ tuition to fix something that’s not broken. AU is a successful remote-work organization. It isn’t clear to me why the minister would target an online, digital university and tamper, seek to micromanage its successful cost-effective model.
“The minister is essentially taking taxpayer dollars and our learners' tuition to fix something that's not broken. AU is a successful remote-work organization.”
At a time when most organizations are looking for ways to accelerate hybrid work models to compete for talent, particularly specialized talent, it seems counter-intuitive to revert back to 1984 and an outdated, and for us, irrelevant, place-based model.
These changes were made unilaterally by the minister without any consultation with our learners, our Board of Governors, the executive, or our team members. Those most impacted by the proposed sweeping changes weren’t consulted or seemingly considered. If we had been consulted, our minister would have learned that our current remote environment is very successful and widely supported by our team both inside and outside the Athabasca region.
92% of staff want to continue working remotely
Some of our staff must work in place today of course, and that place is Athabasca town. Recently, we’ve provided our Athabasca-area team members with the choice to return to a physical office in our town facility if they wanted.
More than 92% of staff consulted said they want to continue working in Athabasca, but remotely. A very few staff elected to return to work in a full-time office space.
The remaining 92% all elected to work in a 21st century, new, hybrid workspace model, choosing to work with flexibility, remotely and on-site. For those staff who are enthusiastically embracing this innovation, we’re going to create new hotelling and collaborative spaces, which we aim to be ready in October, that will help break down the old silos and support new, innovative collaborations.
AU’s talent management plan
Our talent plan, which the minister evidently didn’t like, will showcase these innovations to attract new staff to the region. Our community doesn’t need and won’t benefit from compulsion and cuts in funding. It benefits from more funding and from innovation, not 1980s thinking.
Indeed, if AU had been engaged in further discussions following our June 30 submission, our minister would have learned more about the work we have already undertaken, consulting key stakeholders to develop a land use and real estate plan that will use our Athabasca buildings in more innovative ways to advance research, investment, and sustainable growth in the region.
With the revisions to the investment management agreement, and the requirement to use these buildings for employee offices and place-based work, these plans are in jeopardy.
Imagine plan helped AU become a success
But rather than engage AU in a meaningful dialogue to collaboratively come to a workable solution, the minister and the lobby group continue to point to a supposedly golden age when AU thrived in Athabasca. I will point out the reality of AU’s situation in 2015, when the university may have indeed have a few more people Athabasca but was also on the brink of bankruptcy.
At that time, the government brought in a third party to review AU’s situation. That review helped to create AU’s current strategic vision, Imagine: Transforming Lives, Transforming Communities.
This plan, along with the new executive committed to building talented teams, has turned AU’s financial situation around to become successful and a sustainable institution, one that has, and intends to continue to have, global reach while also providing access to education for tens of thousands of learners in Alberta and all over Canada.
Our learners have told us they’d like to see the Ministry of Advanced Education support them with financial, aid grant programs, and initiatives that expand access and improve the learner’s experience. Rural economic development programs are important and while we acknowledge they have a role to play in supporting the community, we are eager to do so. But these types of programs belong elsewhere.
The economic health of a community can’t be the responsibility of one single employer.
Unilateral changes to AU’s mandate
The minister’s unilateral changes to AU’s vision, mission, and mandate, and its investment management agreement, is putting government control before financial accountability.
To our knowledge, no other post-secondary institution in Alberta has an investment management agreement that has been altered from the originally agreed upon metrics for our sector, yet ours has been changed so significantly that the majority of our performance grant is now tied to metrics that support the economic development of a town of 2,800 people rather than a student body of 40,000 learners.
Board to review new directives
AU’s Board of Governors will meet as soon as possible to review these directives and consider the prudent path forward in the best interest of our learners and our institution. It is the board who must decide on this matter.
As president, I’m concerned that the minister has put AU in an unreasonable, untenable position. I believe that the metrics and timelines are unachievable. So even if we were to agree to it, we would lose critical funding for our learners.
“As president, I'm concerned that the minister has put AU in an unreasonable, untenable position. I believe that the metrics and timelines are unachievable. So even if we were to agree to it, we would lose critical funding for our learners.”
Not signing the agreement means losing $3.45 million in government grant funds every month, which will eventually bankrupt the university. But more importantly, signing this agreement may set the university back 40 years and put it on the path to ruin.
Now I know many of you, our team members and our learners, and others in this sector are concerned about what you’re seeing happening here at AU. You have asked us what you can do to help.
This is a democracy, and the minister himself has now made this a public conversation. We will continue to make our concerns known to government. I urge you to do the same.
—Dr. Peter Scott, president