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

Is Athabasca University, long the redheaded stepchild of Alberta’s universities, about to have its Cinderella moment?

After years of financial insecurity and deep angst about a mission seemingly made redundant by the Internet that sometimes gave the impression of an existential crisis about to go critical, there are signs the future of Athabasca U is suddenly assured.

Athabasca University’s headquarters building with the town of Athabasca visible in the background (Photo: Source not identified).

Recent events suggest the planets are coming into alignment for the 50-year-old distance education university nominally based in the town of Athabasca, 150 kilometres north of Edmonton.

That would be a development that would not be particularly welcome to Alberta’s two top-tier research universities in Calgary and Edmonton or second-tier public institutions like MacEwan, Mount Royal and Lethbridge universities, all of which now have financial challenges of their own.

The emergence on Friday of AU President Neil Fassina as a poster boy for Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides’ 10-year plan to transform Alberta’s post-secondary system certainly suggests something may be afoot. It also likely doesn’t hurt that Dr. Fassina is chair of the Council of Post-Secondary Presidents of Alberta, and therefore the voice for all 26 presidents whose institutions are under the microscope, whatever reservations they may have.

Dr. Fassina is a former Northern Alberta Institute of Technology vice-president hired in 2016 to implement big plans to restore distance-education lustre to an institution that seemed to have lost its shine in a digital age when pretty well anyone could open classes over the Internet.

Add to this the election as Alberta premier of Jason Kenney, a former federal immigration minister and college dropout who resents and distrusts traditional post-secondary institutions and has big plans to slash the cost of post-secondary education.

Toss in a global pandemic that may hinder international travel for years, and you have a set of circumstances that could see AU emerge as the Alberta government’s favoured university — whence by dint of geography and a student body scattered to the four winds there will never be a protest march to the steps of the Legislature!

In addition, Alberta’s traditionally structured universities were banking on foreign students with plenty of cash for high fees to keep them afloat in the brutal austerity everyone expects from the Kenney Government.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

But that was before the global coronavirus pandemic, ending easy international travel for the time being, keeping foreign students at home, and doubtless creating panic in the finance offices of most Canadian universities.

The exception is AU. Its traditional mission and technology means it can recruit students anywhere. And, suddenly, foreign students who might have looked down their noses at AU may see it as a way to get Canadian credentials without the risk or hassle of international travel.

This plays to Premier Kenney’s notions about immigration, too, fostered from his time as Stephen Harper’s citizenship and immigration minister.

Athabasca U is now positioned to tell potential students they can get the credentials they need immigrate to Canada and work here without the expense and inconvenience of having to study here first. And if Mr. Kenney still harbours prime ministerial ambitions, he can try to sell that later as a success for Canada.

AU already has the lowest cost per student of any Alberta university — naturally, because with no students in residence it has little need for physical infrastructure. So Mr. Kenney’s crowd, devoted to austerity and suspicious of universities anyway, has got to like that.

Alberta Advancved Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides (Photo: Screenshot of Government of Alberta video).

Not only does AU make money with every registration, the model is fully scalable and costs won’t go up much if it keeps adding students.

On the downside, without the supports of a normal campus, it’s got a high dropout rate — but who says that matters to the UCP as long as the institution is making money?

The biggest fly in the ointment may be the significant chance of a labour dispute when bargaining for a new collective agreement resumes, with Dr. Fassina’s administration trying to carve two thirds of the Athabasca University Faculty Association out of its bargaining unit. The AUFA contract expired in June.

Labour relations between the administration and the association are testy enough that trying to negotiate by “strategic flinch,” an idea described by Dr. Fassina in a 2013 paper that sounds a lot like having a tantrum at the bargaining table, probably won’t work this time.

Just the same, when McKinsey & Co, starts its speedy analysis of how to fix Alberta’s post-secondary system whether it needs it or not, something tells me Dr. Nicolaides’ American consultants will look with favour on AU and Dr. Fassina’s plans.

CORRECTION: Dr. Fassina is a former vice-president for NAIT. An earlier version of this post stated he was the former president.


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  1. David, is “red-headed stepchild” really an appropriate term? Fair-skinned children might not think so, and no one chooses the color of their skin.

  2. David, I don’t believe Neil was ever a president at NAIT. He was a vice president and Provost.

  3. I find it abhorrent that an institution bent on stealing student’s tuition with bad practices should do anything other than close their doors permanently. Shame on you Athabasca University and shame on the Alberta government for not having a University Review Board.

    1. There’s really no persuasive evidence the Irish in particular or any other specific group were the intended targets of the well-known expression “beaten like a redheaded step child,” nor is it a slur directed at any ethnic group since red hair is a common recessive gene, and not just in Europe. Rather, it is a humorous epigram summing up human mischief and the well known propensity of genes to have genetic outcomes. Like saying all lives matter, the premise of this comment sails closer to the wind than what it criticizes.

      1. Humorous, eh? I’m pretty sure other comments about skin and hair color were “humorous” back in the day, too. Times have changed, but not for some, obviously, Wilma. Maybe bashing albinos is funny in your world, too.

  4. If as you say Athabasca U: The redheaded stepchild of Alberta universities faces a Cinderella moment, it won’t be because it is poised to benefit from increased enrollment from COVID-19.

    It’s all in how you define “Cinderella moment” really. A Cinderella moment could just as easily be that AU is most likely to be sold to for-profit interests for U.S. money. But first, they must destroy or severely weaken their unions and rid themselves of their obligations under various collective agreements.

    There is no doubt that AU is the MOST ready to sell PSE in Alberta. And since privatizing is a top priority for the UPC, that could be the Cinderella moment. It’s all just a matter of perspective isn’t it? After all, who would miss such a redheaded stepchild?

    I’m sorry to be such a Debbie-downer, but AU has become a sad case compared to what it once was. I don’t see it improving anytime soon. That is especially true when the UPC run the show.

    f Athabasca

  5. Does this have something to do with Jason Nixon being a one-time student and former students’ president?

    I recall there was something of a scandal that involved Nixon being paid (and getting an enormous raise) as student president, but not enrolled at AU. Seems he had a budding political career to look after at the time.

    1. Poor stupid Alberta scraped the bottom of the ‘what’s in it for me’ leadership barrel and it was the best that could be found, apparently and allegedly.

      “This means that President Jason Nixon will be (or maybe already is?) the highest paid Student Executive in
      Alberta. And not by a few dollars, but by more than 30%.”

      “It’s All About the Benjamins : AUSU Excec Increases Their Wage Budget”

  6. Third to last paragraph: “… Athabasca University *Facility* Association…”.

  7. As a redhead (2 per cent of the global population), I am very curious to know what the expression “red-headed stepchild” means. I’ve never heard it before. In other news, good piece, David! I guess that removing two-thirds of employees from the bargaining unit is step one in (a) destroying the union and (b) imposing whatever working conditions the bosses want on the proles who remain.

    1. Laurie, a redheaded stepchild is an expression used to describe a person or institution denied the respect it deserves for reasons that are not its fault. The expression is usually rendered as “beaten like a redheaded stepchild.” I was a redhead myself, back in the day, alas, it’s all gone grey now. DJC

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