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Minister pushes back against Athabasca University president’s defence of virtual campus

Minister pushes back against Athabasca University president's defence of virtual campus

Alberta Minister of Advanced Education Demetrius Nikolaides said Athabasca University should make plans to resume and expand in-person operations at its main campus in the northern Alberta town.

“The government has given very clear guidance to the institution,” Nicholaides told CBC News on Tuesday.

“We have asked for some very specific implementation plans due to the government on June 30th and I fully expect those reports and implementation plans to be submitted.”

The directives, announced by Prime Minister Jason Kenny in Athabasca on March 24, will move the African Union away from its transition to near-virtual operations.

The government wants the African Union to submit a plan by June 30 to retain and expand the number of posts in Athabasca. The university should strengthen its executive and management positions at the main campus and develop a plan to bring staff back to campus after two years of working from home.

Nicolaides’ comments come after African Union President Peter Scott sent an email to staff last Thursday that appeared to challenge the government’s plans. She said the institution’s move to a virtual campus would continue.

“The comments and views expressed by government officials during the city meeting were not indicative of the reciprocal and advisory relationship that the African Union has had for many years with the Government of Alberta and the Ministry of Advanced Education,” Scott wrote.

“I would like to stress that our operations, mission and mandate remain unchanged.”

Scott wrote that the institution’s transition to a “virtual, online campus” with a “virtual, quasi-virtual workforce” would continue, and suggested that the requirement that employees live in Athabasca would hamper the university’s employability.

“To ensure the university’s future success, long-term sustainability and the success of our learners, the university will continue to prioritize the needs of more than 43,000 learners worldwide by ensuring that we continue to recruit and retain the best and brightest talent,” the email said.

Nicolaides said the African Union can fulfill its mission to provide distance learning from a base in Athabasca.

“We have a group of colleges with subsidiaries in all of our rural communities. They are doing a good job. They are recruiting high quality talent not just within Alberta, but globally,” he said. “So I’m confident we’ll be able to do the same here.”

e-mail address “Tahadi”

The announcement was seen as a victory for locals participating in a year-long campaign to keep Athabasca University operating in Athabasca.

In spring 2020, the university’s board of trustees voted to move to what it called “semi-virtual” operations. Meanwhile, employees at the main campus have moved to work at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Residents began to fear that the work-at-home arrangement would always remain, eventually allowing hundreds of well-paid jobs to leave the town of 3,000 people.

Minister pushes back against Athabasca University president's defence of virtual campus
Athabasca University plans to move to what it calls “semi-virtual” operations. (CBC)

The grassroots group solicited support from district councils, wrote opinion pieces in newspapers and hired a lobbyist to get government permission.

The mayor of Athabasca, Rob Balay, said the tone of Scott’s email shocked him.

“I’ve seen it to be somewhat of a challenge,” Balai said.

Balay is pleased that the government recently appointed three people to the Board of Governors who live in Athabasca or have close ties to the city.

When he was on the board, Balay was the only representative of the community.

The university is making some moves to standardize in Athabasca. Branch office leases in Edmonton and Calgary were not renewed.

Previous decades required university presidents to work outside the main campus in Athabasca. This provision no longer exists.

Scott, an academic from Australia, became president of the African Union in January. The university said he would be residing in Alberta but declined to provide further details. It is not clear how the government’s directive will change his workplace and life.

The university said Scott was not available for an interview with CBC News.

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