Opinion: Closing Athabasca University Campus Will Hurt School, Community, and Alberta

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A battle unfolds an hour and a half north of Edmonton that has implications for the entire province. The bets? The future of Athabasca University (AU) as a unique institution in Alberta. In May 2020, the university’s board of directors, in a closed-door meeting, decided to effectively shut down the main Athabasca campus and end the Edmonton and Calgary campus leases. Starting in January, AU will move to an “almost virtual” model, that is, from a university based in a specific location, AU will now exist primarily in space. Instead of living and working in Athabasca, top employees, including the president, can be based in Victoria, Toronto, or anywhere else they like.

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College is one of Alberta’s greatest success stories. From its humble beginnings in 1970, AU has grown to become one of the largest and fastest growing online and open universities in the world, serving more than 45,000 students in 87 countries. It is the fifth largest university in Canada and one of four comprehensive academic and research universities in the province. For 37 years, AU has served as an intellectual hub for Northern Alberta, attracting some of the best and brightest from across the country and the world. However, in the absence of swift and decisive action, it will hardly have a presence in the city where it has grown up.

As an online university, AU’s home is Athabasca, where most of the managerial and administrative employees work. Ten years ago, 520 employees lived in the community. Today, less than 300 do. After the university went near virtual in January, this number is expected to plummet to less than 40. Recently, AU announced senior positions that previously would have been based in Athabasca. Not anymore. As job postings breathlessly put it, “In this exciting and almost virtual work environment, this position can be permanently at home from anywhere in the country – your zip code is irrelevant!” Your zip code may be irrelevant, but the impact of outsourcing these jobs outside of the university, the community, and our province is not.

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The main victim will be the university itself. The near-virtual model will erode the cohesive culture of the university and destroy the creative vigor that has fueled its success. How can you really collaborate with your colleagues when you never see them, much less meet them in person? Then, of course, there is the impact on the community. Fewer people living and working in the Athabasca region means less income, which affects everything from roads to schools to medical services. Likewise, our province will suffer as government-backed jobs migrate elsewhere.

It is important to remember that the decision to locate AU in Athabasca was deliberate, part of the Lougheed government’s commitment to rural development. Then he understood what others are not understanding now: Alberta is the sum of its communities. Yes, we need vibrant urban centers like Edmonton, but we also need thriving towns and cities. The AU board of governors has turned their back on Lougheed’s vision, putting the university, the community, and our province in jeopardy in the process.

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Let us also not forget that AU is a publicly funded institution. Last year, the provincial government provided more than $ 47 million in funding, representing 30 percent of the university’s revenue. What does Alberta get in return? Since the near-virtual plan was announced, employees have moved and recruited out of the province. Why does the provincial government support employees who pay taxes and spend their wages outside of Alberta?

The UCP government has the power to reverse the disastrous decision of the board of governors. We believe in government when it says it is committed to a high quality education that makes a positive contribution to Alberta’s economy, society and culture. We believe Prime Minister Jason Kenney when he says he is committed to job creation and development in rural Alberta. With a single decision, your government can do both.

The window of opportunity to do so is shrinking day by day. Unless action is taken, and soon, the only thing Albertan about AU will be the money it receives from Alberta taxpayers.

Colleen Powell is Mayor of the City of Athabasca.

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Reference-edmontonjournal.com

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