There’s been a couple of twists and counter-twists to a five-month dispute between Athabasca University and the Alberta government.
“There was a difference in tone and then they retracted that difference in tone,” Mount Royal University Political Scientist Duane Bratt said.
Last week in an effort to bolster rural economies, the province demanded 500 university staff move to Athabasca or the university would lose its $3.4-million monthly provincial grant.
The university has said that represents a quarter of total funding and without it, the school will likely fail.
Alberta’s advanced education minister said his department previously asked the university for a concrete plan by June 30 to expand the physical presence of the school in the town of 2,800, located about 130 kilometres north of Edmonton.
The two sides have been debating the role and mission of Athabasca University for months. It is Canada’s largest online university, hosting 40,000 students linked up virtually across Canada and beyond with instructors.
It was moved from Edmonton to Athabasca almost 40 years ago to provide distance learning and help rural economic growth.
Therein lies the rub.
Over time, the school’s on-site staff has dwindled as more began working remotely. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated that shift and now only a quarter of the 1,200 staff work on-site.
Local residents formed a lobby group a year ago seeking to reverse that trend, and in March, Premier Jason Kenney promised to find a way to bring more staff back.
Minister Demetrios Nicolaides was quoted in a Globe and Mail article on Thursday as saying the demands are actually flexible and were a suggestion.
But in a statement to Global News asking for clarification, the minister said:
“The original proposal has not changed and it’s still on the table but I’m more than happy to hear alternatives. This is common practice when negotiating the terms of an investment management agreement. It is important to note, we originally deferred to the university to create a plan to strengthen their presence within the town. But they failed to answer questions posed by government and did not have a clear timeline or plan to have senior administrative functions based in the town. There were no clear dates, costs, or plans for strengthening their physical presence in the town.
“In the absence of a plan we have been forced to develop our on roadmap.
“Alberta’s government looks forward to collaborating with and supporting the university in any ways necessary, to achieve the goals we have set out for them, as we await their new plan to be submitted by Sept. 30.”
Bratt said it sounds like no change has been made.
“They are simply saying, ‘No, this is part of the negotiations and we’re waiting for an action plan but our demands haven’t shifted,” Bratt said.
Bratt said it seems there is an internal debate within the ministry on what to do, which is confusing to the university.
“In their mind nothing has changed. The government is softening their stance, but then the government’s response is, ‘No we are not,'” Bratt said.
Kristine Williamson, vice-president of university relations, said in statement, “Athabasca University would be thrilled to return to the consultative relationship it has had with government for years.
“We look forward to the opportunity to pick up discussions with the minister and working with the government to find a mutually agreeable path forward that best serves AU, our learners and the community of Athabasca.”
The university has argued demanding employees work in the town of fewer than 3,000 people does not further the mandate of quality education — but in fact, detracts from it by making it harder to recruit top-quality candidates.
For those affected, community is at the heart of the debate.
“Well the hope moving forward is that we come to amicable solution where it’s a win-win for the university a win-win for the community and province,” Athabasca Mayor Robert Balay said.
Wins which could require at least a few more twists and turns.
— With files from Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press