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Athabasca University president calls Alberta on-site staffing demand backward, ruinous

The president of Athabasca University says the Alberta government’s demand that the online school relocate 500 staffers to a rural town is so backward, unfair and self-defeating, it threatens to put the institution “on the path to ruin.”

The president of Athabasca University says the Alberta government’s demand that the online school relocate 500 staffers to a rural town is so backward, unfair and self-defeating, it threatens to put the institution “on the path to ruin.”

Peter Scott says he is all for economic development in Athabasca, a town of less than 3,000 located 145 kilometres north of Edmonton. But he says he can’t understand why Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides is demanding his school be the key economic driver.

He also questions spending money to uproot and accommodate hundreds of staff — if they will come — while not advancing the school’s core mission of quality online education.

Scott said the school has successfully rebounded from near bankruptcy in 2015, has money in the bank, is growing its programs and boasts 40,000 virtual learners across Canada.

“Why are we having a conversation about cutting the budget of a university that is doing a great job? That is a weird place to be,” Scott said Friday in an interview.

“If you want to help rural Alberta, perhaps there’s another minister with an investment fund that could really help that community — and I would be very delighted as a mainstay of that community to contribute.

“But I shouldn’t be asked to divert student funds into doing that work. The government of Alberta should fess up and get on with it.”

Earlier Friday, Scott, in a web video to staff and students, urged those concerned to contact Nicolaides and make their feelings known, telling them, “signing this agreement may set the university back 40 years and put it on the path to ruin.”

A week ago, Nicolaides ordered the school to come up with a plan within two months to have more staff and executive members physically work in Athabasca.

If the school doesn’t put the relocation plan into action, the minister warns the school could face a cut to its $3.4-million a month performance grant.

Just under 300 university staff currently work in Athabasca, representing a quarter of the total school workforce.

The rest work remotely. Of those remote workers, the school says one in three live in rural areas — either Athabasca or elsewhere, with staff scattered among 100 towns, villages and hamlets in Alberta.

Scott said Nicolaides is demanding 500 more staffers, including executive members, relocate to the town by 2025.

Scott, in the web video, said Nicolaides “has put (the university) in an unreasonable and untenable position.”

He said if the university board of governors votes for the plan, the relocation cost for employees and their families along with tight timelines would be near impossible to implement — meaning the school would lose its funding for not complying.

Yet, he said, if the school doesn’t sign on to the deal by the end of September, it could lose its funding anyway — about a quarter of the budget, with bankruptcy inevitably to follow.

Nicolaides was not available for an interview but in a statement said, “This government will not waver in its support of (Athabasca University) as a key economic and social driver in the northern region.

“Alberta’s taxpayers deserve to see their millions of dollars in funding for this institution benefit the local community and Albertans alike.”

The minister said he has taken the next step with the September deadline because the university failed to deliver a workable staff relocation plan when directed to produce one in June.

“In the absence of a plan we have been forced to develop our own roadmap,” said Nicolaides.

The statements are the latest move in what has become a five-month standoff between the minister and the school.

Nicolaides has said the school can still be effective while helping the economy grow but Scott has resisted. He said the change would make it harder to recruit top talent and flourish in online education.

More importantly, Scott said, it has upended the rationale for the school’s very existence.

“The majority of our performance grant is now tied to metrics that support the economic development of a town of 2,800 people rather than a student body of 40,000,” he said.

The change was announced earlier in the year after a local lobby group — called Keep Athabasca in Athabasca University — lobbied to have more administrative staff and executive members work in the town to help boost the economy.

In March, Premier Jason Kenney came to town to promise the province would make changes to bring people back.

To further that goal, Nicolaides replaced the chair of the board of governors in May and added more town members to the board of governors.