Report suggests future for Athabasca University, but financial woes still a major concern

Athabasca University logo. Supplied

Athabasca University (AU) has an opportunity to redefine itself as a leader in online education, according to the man responsible for a third-party review of the school. But Dr. Ken Coates said without serious attention to the ongoing financial crisis facing the institution, “a dangerous and potentially unstoppable spiral” awaits the school.

“Unless significant changes are made – and soon – AU will face a financial crisis early in 2018,” wrote Coates.

The report is the result of a multi-month effort to analyze the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats to AU. During his consultation, Coates spoke with students, instructors, community members, and other stakeholders involved with the school.

“Done properly, AU could enter a period of sustained growth, healthy budgets and the improvement of Alberta’s status as a provider of twenty-first-century advanced education,” Coates said.

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But Coates feels the school’s finances have deflected attention from finding a new mission and path forward.

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“Given the explosion of global interest in online education, the massive investments in educational technology in the current marketplace and a growing preoccupation with retraining and skills development in the face of new economy transitions, AU is in a strong position to dramatically expand and change its programs and services.”

Coates believes AU should rebrand itself as “the leading Canadian centre for online learning.” To do that, Coates said the Alberta government needs to step up in funding critical capital infrastructure upgrades at the school.

Historically, the Alberta government has defined capital spending as “bricks and mortar,” not technology. In a 2016 funding request, the school said the government’s bias toward this type of funding was causing the province to lose its leadership status in the world of distance education.

In April, Advanced Education Minister Marlin Schmidt told News Talk 770 the government would entertain conversations about changing the funding for the school’s digital infrastructure after Coates’ review was finished.

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“Our government will continue to work with Athabasca University as it improves operations, supports students, and builds partnerships with northern and Indigenous communities,” Schmidt said at the release of the report on Thursday. “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.”

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The report has set out a timeline for a number of actions to be taken by the school in order to move forward on a new path.

“(The report) challenges the government and the university to work together to support the future of distance learning,” said Athabasca University board chair Vivian Manasc. “The university administration and president will have the board’s full support as they implement the recommendations in the report.”

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