News / Calgary

Fears arise that Alberta's Athabasca University will be lost as tough budget looms

Alberta-based Athabasca University is facing a multi-million-dollar budget hole, but the institution's president believes students will continue to be able to login and learn in the years ahead.

Even if Campus Alberta grants for the school, the only English-speaking institution in Canada devoted solely to distance-learning, come in at the same level it did last year, Athabasca would be about $4 million short, or about three per cent of its total operating costs.

But that's a big if, concedes president Peter MacKinnon, as the province has warned of a nine per cent total reduction in departmental spending and peer universities have begun preparing for cuts of five per cent or more.

"It isn't going to be an easy thing to do, but I believe this university has, potentially, a terrific future," MacKinnon said Monday when asked about closing the budgetary gap. "It's a wonderful legacy, it's been around for 50 years. It has made possible the educational dreams of large numbers of people. I think we'll be doing that in the years to come."

Athabasca's distance — or online — learning approach allows many students to take upgrading courses or simply an offering not provided at their current school — about 77 per cent the university's 40,000 students fall into that category and the rest are pursuing actual degrees.

The financial picture painted by MacKinnon was less dire than one he wrote about in November that warned of a shortfall of "at least $12 million."

The president said, however, information about the school's finances has become more clear as time has progressed.

Still, faculty members like Ingo Schmidt can't shake a feeling of impending doom. Athabasca has already cut more than 60 staff positions in recent years and Schmidt said morale is very low.

"I'm not aware of anybody at AU that's not worried about its future," said Schmidt, who serves as academic co-ordinator of the school's labour studies program but, because of its approach, is able to work from his home Vancouver.

"Staff is not aware of any plans," Schmidt said. "You don't have to take labour studies courses to imagine that this isn't very good for workplace morale or productivity."

A "staff pulse survey" conducted in the fall, a copy of which was leaked to Metro, found just 35 per cent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed when asked if the school had a "strong feeling of team spirit."

Staff confidence also appears to decline as their terms with Athabasca progress in years. Nearly 57 per cent of members that had been with the university less than two years had confidence in the senior leadership, but that number shrank to 18 per cent among staff with the school between 10-20 years and was less than 10 per cent for those employed longer than 20 years.

Jason Nixon, president of the Athabasca Students' Union said students are also concerned, but that financial uncertainty at the online school is nothing new.

“It’s time for a plan to be developed to make sure this can be dealt with once and for all and AU can be a sustainable university going forward," he said. "

Nixon also vouched for the school's approach and expressed hope it could continue on.

“I think AU students go to AU because it provides a very unique service," he said.

Rumours have long swirled that Athabasca could partner with a larger school to ensure it survives in tough economic times. President Peter MacKinnon said Monday he was open to exploring "collaboration" with other institutions.

— With files from Leah Holoiday

More on Metronews.ca