Alberta government reduces employee-relocation demands, reaches deal with Athabasca University

The Athabasca University campus north of Edmonton in Athabasca, Alta. Supplied

The Alberta government has struck a deal with Athabasca University that will see the post-secondary institution increase the number of employees who live in the town that the mostly online university is named for.

In a news release Wednesday night, Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides noted the new investment management agreement “stipulates that four of the university’s nine executive members must be based in the town of Athabasca within the next three years and that the university must grow the number of local employees from 252 to 277 within three years.”

The government said the university’s board of governors has unanimously approved the new investment management agreement.

Athabasca mayor Robert Balay said the move is a long time coming and it’s good news for the town.

“For the most part, it meets our our three objectives of making sure our community has long term sustainable employment in the region.”

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Balay is pleased the plan will bring more people to the town of 2,800, located about 130 kilometres north of Edmonton.

“Probably the most significant part is the ceasing of the the near-virtual (presence) for the Athabasca campus and opening up the campus to the public, the community and the employees to actually go in and work in their offices.

“I believe this will have great positive results for not only us, but for the university as well.”

Nicolaides’ press secretary confirmed the agreement means the government has dropped its demand that the university have 500 employees living in Athabasca.

He also told Global News that with the new deal, the university is no longer at risk of having its $3.4-million monthly grant withheld if it doesn’t meet the 500-employee threshold.

Click to play video: 'Province fires Athabasca University board members'
Province fires Athabasca University board members

On Thursday, Balay said the town never expected those 500 employees — they just wanted in-person staffing back to pre-pandemic levels and that the university’s core positions be anchored in the town.

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“This is a good first step and there’s no reason why that core can’t grow and shouldn’t grow, and we expect it to grow,” the mayor said.

He also said slowing increasing the number of families that live and work in the community will also bring investment: small businesses and franchises like fast food restaurants.

“Every community needs to grow to survive. So this is part of it. They’re not the only big employer in the region, but they’ve been our biggest to date.

“This certainly goes a long way to maintaining sustainability in those regards.”

Nicolaides told 630 CHED’s Shaye Ganam on Thursday that the ministry had never had a firm target of 500 personnel.

“At the very beginning, I had provided direction to the university, which was very simply to have their executive and administrative operations be based in the town. I actually didn’t at that time include any timelines or numbers because I thought it was best to leave those details up to the university,” he said.

Nicolaides said he asked the university for a plan to get those staff in Athabasca, but it didn’t provide one, so the government was “compelled” to put some numbers down.

READ MORE: Alberta advanced education minister extends deadline for Athabasca University to move staff to town

In a statement, Athabasca University president Dr. Peter Scott said the university’s board of governors has endorsed an agreement with the province that “removes the threat of forced relocation of AU team members, creates financial stability and gives us the ability to continue to work near-virtually, which will help AU compete for talent.”

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“The agreement also safeguards AU’s original mission and vision statements, which were developed in consultation with our university community and previously approved by our general faculties council and board of governors,” Scott wrote.

“The Minister of Advanced Education asked AU to submit a plan to significantly increase its physical presence in Athabasca earlier this year. We were pleased to work with our community to develop and present a comprehensive and balanced plan to create an exciting research hub in northern Alberta, to benefit the Athabasca region and support the government’s Alberta 2030 strategy. We look forward to continuing to work with the minister to refine this ambitious plan to realize a wealth of benefit for our community of Athabasca as well as our learners and researchers.”

The university moved from Edmonton to Athabasca almost 40 years ago to provide distance learning, create jobs and help rural economic growth in the region.

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.

The Athabasca University campus north of Edmonton in Athabasca, Alta. Supplied

“Athabasca University had about 500 employees based in Athabasca until 2014, but now only half that number work in the town,” the government said.

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“A 2017 report into the university’s future recommended that the university strengthen its physical presence in Athabasca.”

Nicolaides said it’s important to not lose sight of the original vision and that the new targets are “very achievable.”

“I am confident the university will be able to meet these goals,” he said. “How the university achieves these targets is entirely up to it and I have already heard about some interesting and exciting ideas from the faculty association and others about how this can be accomplished.”

The university had previously resisted the government’s demand that 500 employees live in Athabasca. The university had said requiring so many staff to live in the small town would make it more difficult to recruit top talent and cost money and time to enforce.

Click to play video: 'Athabasca University president calls on-site staffing demand to the small Alberta town backward, ruinous'
Athabasca University president calls on-site staffing demand to the small Alberta town backward, ruinous

Last month, the university’s board of governors saw a significant change in its membership, when Nicolaides announced four public members had been removed from the board via an order in council.

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READ MORE: Athabasca University board of governors shakeup meant to move relocation plans forward: minister

Seven new public members were also added to the board, one of whom was to succeed a sitting board member.

— With files from The Canadian Press and Adam Toy, Global News

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