The relocation dispute between Athabasca University and the Alberta government has twists and turns

There have been a few twists and turns in 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,” said Duane Bratt, a political scientist at Mount Royal University.

Last week, in an effort to bolster the rural economy, the province requested that 500 university employees relocate to Athabasca or the university would lose its $3.4 million monthly provincial stipend.

The university has said this represents a quarter of the total funding and without it the school is likely to fail.

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Advanced Education minister says Alberta will help relocate 500 school staff from Athabasca University

Alberta’s Minister of Advanced Education said his department had previously asked the university for a specific plan by June 30 to expand the school’s physical presence in the city of 2,800 people, which is about 130 kilometers north of Edmonton .

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The two sides have been discussing Athabasca University’s role and mission for months. It is Canada’s largest online university with 40,000 students connected virtually to faculty across Canada and beyond.

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The president of Athabasca University describes the local staffing needs in the small Alberta town as backward and ruinous

The president of Athabasca University describes the local staffing needs in the small Alberta town as backward and ruinous

It was relocated from Edmonton to Athabasca nearly 40 years ago to provide distance learning and support rural economic growth.

Therein lies the catch.

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

Local residents formed a lobby group a year ago to reverse that trend, and in March Prime Minister Jason Kenney vowed to find a way to bring more staff back.

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The president of Athabasca University describes the local staffing needs in Alberta as backward and ruinous

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Minister Demetrios Nicolaides was quoted in a Globe and Mail article on Thursday as saying the demands are indeed flexible and a proposal.

But in a statement to Global News asking for clarification, the minister said:

“The original proposal hasn’t changed and is still on the table, but I’m very happy to hear alternatives. This is standard practice when negotiating the terms of an investment management agreement. It’s important to note that we originally left it up to the university to create a plan to strengthen its presence in the city. But they failed to answer government questions and had no clear timetable or plan to establish senior administrative functions in the city. There were no clear dates, costs or plans to strengthen their physical presence in the city.

“In the absence of a plan, we were forced to develop our on-roadmap.

“The Alberta Government looks forward to working with the University and supporting them in any way needed to achieve the goals we have set for them as we await the release of their new plan by September 30th .”

Bratt said it sounds like no change has been made.

“They just say, ‘No, that’s part of the negotiations and we’re waiting for an action plan, but our demands haven’t changed,'” Bratt said.

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Bratt said there appears to be internal debate within the ministry about what to do, which is confusing for the university.

“In their eyes, nothing has changed. The government softens its stance, but then the government’s response is, ‘No, we’re not,'” Bratt said.

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University responds in political battle with Alberta government and proposes not to be heard

Kristine Williamson, vice president of university relations, said in a statement: “Athabasca University would be thrilled to return to the consultative relationship it has enjoyed with the government for years.

“We look forward to the opportunity to begin discussions with the Minister and work with the Government to find a mutually agreed path forward that best serves the AU, our learners and the Athabasca community.”

The university has argued that demanding staff working in the city of fewer than 3,000 people does not promote the mandate of quality education – but detracts from it by making it harder to recruit highly qualified candidates.

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Alberta threatens Athabasca University with a funding cut in ongoing fight

For those affected, the community is at the center of the debate.

“Well, the hope for the future is that we can come to an amicable solution where it’s a win-win for the university and a win-win for the municipality and the province,” said the mayor of Athabasca, Robert Balay.

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Wins that might require at least a few more twists and turns.

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Athabasca University is in a neck-and-neck race with the province for staff location

Athabasca University competes with province for staff location – August 3, 2022

— With files by Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press

© 2022 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc. The relocation dispute between Athabasca University and the Alberta government has twists and turns


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