Alberta Politics
Athabasca University President Neil Fassina (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Good new/bad news: Things are looking up for Athabasca University, so why is there no progress on a contract with faculty?

Posted on August 10, 2018, 1:31 am
7 mins

If readers will forgive me for turning away for a moment from the fascinating and highly entertaining topic of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s bizarre attempt to mud-wrestle Canada into submission, we need to look at a topic a little closer to home, to wit: Athabasca University.

Readers will recall how in 2015, Albertans were warned the province’s online university was in deep financial trouble, likely looking at insolvency within two years.

Athabasca University Board Chair Vivian Manasc (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Over the subsequent year, a grim tussle ensued between the university’s outgoing interim president and NDP Advanced Education Minister Marlin Schmidt over whether or not faculty and staff would have to be laid off.

Eventually, the minister nixed the idea, which would have had a brutal impact on the economy of the Town of Athabasca, 130 kilometres north of Edmonton.

In August 2016, former Northern Alberta Institute of Technology President Neil Fassina was hired as President of Athabasca U. In September that year, the NDP appointed five new members to the university’s board. In March 2017, the NDP appointed Edmonton architect Vivian Manasc as chair of the university’s board.

So far so good … whether the changes were the charm, or the compromise budget put in place by interim president Peter MacKinnon before the new Board members were appointed did the trick, something seems to have worked.

On the financial front, things are looking up dramatically for the 48-year-old institution that got its start as an unusual all-correspondence university located on a campus with no students in small-town northern Alberta.

NDP Advanced Education Minister Marlin Schmidt (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

In those days there was no Internet, so Athabasca and its students relied on the postal service. The rise of the Internet was part of Athabasca’s problem: It made it easier for conventional universities to compete with online courses and programs.

In four of the past five years, though, Athabasca has posted surplus budgets. The one year it didn’t, 2016, the deficit was slightly over half a million dollars, hardly a deal-breaker. Last year’s surplus was $3.6 million.

Part of the story is that Athabasca has benefited from two years in which it received 2-per-cent increases in government grants, which comprise about 35 per cent of its total revenue.

But another important part of the university’s successful journey back from the brink is that enrolment has been steadily trending upward since 2013 as student confidence in the university’s future turned around. In the current year, undergraduate course registrations are up 15 per cent. It’s important, because Athabasca U derives about half its revenue from tuition.

Naturally, given the current fashion for running public universities as if they were for-profit corporations, senior administrators have been rewarded with generous bonuses.

In 2017, Dr. Fassina received a 16-per-cent bonus worth almost $62,000 on top of his contractual base pay of $337,000 plus the 15-per-cent bonus he received in 2016. This raised his annual salary to $450,000, a sum that does not include the value of pension and other perks.

NDP MLA for the Athabasca Riding, Colin Piquette (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Also last year, former Athabasca Finance Vice-President Estelle Lo was paid $267,500 in base salary, $34,540 in other compensation, and $388,900 in severance – for a total $691,000.

So why, Athabasca University faculty members wonder, are they having so much trouble negotiating a new contract?

They’re in negotiations now – the first time under court-mandated changes to Alberta’s labour laws that mean they have the right to strike legally, and the employer has the right to lock them out.

So far they’ve been offered zero for 2018, zero for 2019, and 43 pages of rollbacks!

Well, as a shrewd observer of labour relations of my acquaintance observes, two zeroes fit with the government’s mandate for public sector salaries. But other unionized public sector employees have been able to negotiate improvements in contract language, or at least hold the line on good contract language they already had, in return for accepting the wage freeze.

Yet university negotiators have not accepted any union proposals, although they have withdrawn a few of their most egregious demands.

Right now, there is little evidence Athabasca U is prepared to make any concessions in pursuit of a wage freeze, or that the union is prepared to accept anything but.

Common sense suggests huge raises for the bosses and no raises for the people doing the work is a formula for a labour dispute. The timing would put any such dispute right before the general election expected in 2019.

Needless to say, a strike at Athabasca would not be good news for the NDP or New Democrat MLA Colin Piquette, who was elected in part because of local concerns about the future of the university, and who will have to deal with significantly redistributed riding boundaries in 2019.

When you think about this, remember this key fact: Athabasca University is no longer in financial peril.

You have to wonder why this university is pushing negotiations toward the cliff at a sensitive moment for a government that’s worked hard to keep it viable and at a time when other Alberta public universities are making progress toward finding reasonable agreement on collective agreements with their academic employees.

5 Comments to: Good new/bad news: Things are looking up for Athabasca University, so why is there no progress on a contract with faculty?

  1. Jan

    August 10th, 2018

    What the real question should be is why we’re pumping taxpayers’ dollars into a failed online university like Athabasca. We should shut this boondoggle down completely and look at supporting real universities like the U of A, U of C, and U of L.

    Reply
    • Jenna

      August 11th, 2018

      First of all, AU is one of the Comprehensive Academic Research Institutions in Alberta (look it up on the Alberta Website). It is on the same level as UofA, UofC, and UofL so this is a REAL university.

      Second, there are 60K undergraduate students that will need to be moved (or absorbed by another university like what happened to Augustana College to UofA) when it shuts down so this will be a huge program for the Ministry of Education and will cost $$.

      There are many, many, students out there, like me, who cannot afford to go to a brick-and-mortar university because of various extenuating reasons like age and disability. I have completed fully-transferable courses to the universities you have mentioned because AU has enabled me to work on my degree while I go to my job so I can financially support my family.

      This university has a lot of potential and it already offers the largest distance courses in Canada. What it needs to do is to be more extra competitive because there are other universities that are also on the same playing field.

      Reply
    • JoeQCitizen

      August 15th, 2018

      Also AU is Canada’s only Open University. So “kids” who are 16 and old, but haven’t yet completed high school can enroll and get a head start on university courses. Or people mid-career who may have the knowledge and real life experience to go after a degree, but may not have the required educational background to enroll in a traditional university can at AU.

      Reply
  2. Athabascan

    August 13th, 2018

    One commentator attacking the existence of Athabasca university, while another defends it in a self-serving argument.

    The issue David writes about is not whether AU should exist or not. Rather, it is about the poor labour relations in that particular workplace, and the excessive way executives are rewarding themselves. It’s about the hypocrisy of the university’s bargaining team that claims poverty, when the FACTS suggest otherwise.

    In my 22 years experience I would never claim labour relations as being respectful, or professional at AU. Moreover, I would suggest that in the past 5 years the relationship between AUFA and AU has deteriorated to such an extent that one has to wonder how the institution manages to function. I’ve never seen it this bad.

    The comment section is sparse, but that is not reflective of the interest David’s article has generated. When this story went public on Friday many emails and phone calls resulted among Athabasca staff. The fact that no other AU employee has chimed in, is a testament to the oppressive work relations at AU. No one wants to comment for fear of retribution.

    We are in the middle of negotiating with an employer that to us seems unwilling to bargain with a view to reach an agreement. More and more it looks like they are using the process to punish AUFA members. Some have speculated this is the start of a US-style anti-union labour relations era, possibly promoted by our new US imported Vice President Academic (Provost).

    Can labour relations be improved at AU? You bet it can! But first, it’s probably not advisable, for the VPA to send out an inflammatory general communique to AUFA members as he did in May. Just sayin’…

    Reply
    • JoeQPublic

      August 16th, 2018

      ‘Athabascan’ it’s interesting that they claim poverty when bargaining with one union, but not the other. I’ve heard of a “Fair Wages for AUFA” campaign at AU, and from I’ve heard it’s a mixed message. From the way it was explained to me, it’s more if a Bargain in good faith campaign. In that it’s hard to take the messages of change seriously when the lip service says one thing and on the other is what David’s story talks about.

      It also partially comes back to the NDP’s 0 mandate, to which hilarity is added when public funded private for profit long term care centres are getting raises. Anyhow.. I’m just rambling…

      Reply

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