September 21, 2022

Province pledges money to relocate Athabasca University staff

Alberta’s minister of higher education says he’s ready to help Athabasca University with anything it wants — including money — to relocate 500 staff to the port town. the name of the school, but said the school did not step up.

“I have offered to provide any kind of assistance the university needs. They didn’t ask for it,” Demetrios Nicolaides said in a weekend interview.

Nicolaides said his department previously asked the university for a concrete plan by June 30 to expand the school’s physical presence in the town of 2,800.

“What I received on June 30 did not contain any financial request, and did not even contain any sort of financial information or financial implications associated with the (staff) move,” he said. “So, in the absence of any details from the university, we’re going to have to take a step forward.

Nicolaides’ comments come as the clash between him and university president Peter Scott becomes increasingly divisive, with a looming deadline hanging the school’s fate in the balance.

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 virtually connected students across Canada and beyond with instructors.

It was moved from Edmonton to Athabasca, 145 km north of the provincial capital, nearly 40 years ago to provide distance education and help rural economic growth.

This is where the problem lies.

Over time, the school’s on-site staff dwindled as others began working remotely. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated this change and now only a quarter of the 1,200 employees work on site.

A year ago, local residents formed a pressure group to reverse that trend, and in March Premier Jason Kenney promised to find a way to bring back more staff.

Nicolaides agrees, saying he’s not reinventing the school’s mandate, but simply trying to turn the tide.

Scott openly agreed to disagree.

On Friday, he publicly called the plan backward and self-defeating while making it harder to recruit top talent and needlessly siphoning off critical funds, resources and time better spent on learning.

Scott said he wanted to help, but said it was unfair to ask the school to be the town’s main economic engine.

“(The plan) will add absolutely nothing to the university,” Scott said in a video presentation to staff and students.

Scott also noted that the move would ironically mean that some university staff who already work remotely in other rural areas would be directed to that rural area in the name of rural development.

Asked about this potentially counterproductive aspect of the relocation scheme, Nicolaides said these are the kinds of issues that need to be addressed – but said it cannot be done before school. the details.

Nicolaides also dismissed criticism that his united Conservative government, with elections looming next spring, is pursuing this plan simply to secure votes in crucial rural areas.

“That’s completely inaccurate,” he said.

“I don’t believe we are asking for anything new,” he added. “People have been working in the city (for decades) providing high quality university programs for Albertans and other Canadians.

“Let’s continue on this path of excellence.

Since June 30, the debate has turned online in the sand.

Scott said the school presented a “talent management plan” in its June 30 submission, including incentives such as on-site centers, meeting and research spaces. He said officials had not heard back.

Nicolaides responded with a letter on July 29, directing the school’s board of trustees to promise by the end of August to formally agree to begin work to bring more staff back to the city.

Scott said the government stipulates that 65% of staff – as well as members of management – ​​must live in Athabasca by 2025. That means 500 people must move out.

Nicolaides also ordered that board acceptance of the plan be followed by an implementation strategy submitted by the end of September.

Failure to do so, Nicolaides said, means the school risks losing its $3.4 million monthly provincial grant. Scott said that’s a quarter of the total funding and without it the school will likely fail.

In May, Nicolaides replaced the chairman of the board of governors with Calgary attorney Byron Nelson, who Nicolaides said is on board with the relocation plan.

Scott, meanwhile, is now looking to harness the power of public opinion, urging staff, students and supporters to contact Nicolaides’ office to give him a listening ear.

It boils down to two parties searching for common ground while seemingly unable to agree on even basic definitions.

Scott, in an interview on Friday, accused Nicolaides of micromanaging his school. Nicolaides said it was not about micromanagement but about responsible oversight.

As for the impending multimillion-dollar budget cut, Scott said, “The minister said it was not an ultimatum.”

“I had to quickly check my dictionary to see what ultimatum means.”

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on August 7, 2022.