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The death of Athabasca University has been greatly exaggerated

I keep hearing rumours about Athabasca University dying or at least being on its deathbed. I guess stories like this don’t help: AU taskforce releases sustainability report. This article was picked up by Tony Bates, who states: “So Athabasca University is now in the same position as the Greek government, except it doesn’t have the EU, the IMF, or the Germans to look to for help – just the Alberta government, which itself has been fiscally devastated by the collapse of oil prices.”

I’m conflicted by Tony’s response. He has forgotten more about digital learning than most of us will ever know. He has a global view of the sector and has been in the trenches as a leader. His diagnoses of how AU’s problems came about resonates with the discussion that I have heard. Unfortunately, Tony also adds needless rhetoric to a situation that has qualitatively changed with the new government in Alberta. His comments don’t reflect the new Alberta context.

I don’t know all the behind the scenes discussions relating to this report. I don’t know the specific intent of the sustainability report. My impression from what I’ve read (see: Athabasca University’s Hostage Crisis and Athabasca University facing insolvency, Alberta government may have to step in) is that this is a political game (request for more funding) that is being played in the public sphere.

It’s amply clear that governments are divesting from public education. The defining challenge of our time is inequality. Any sufficiently advanced and civilized society should ensure a) healthcare is available to all and b) an education is available to all. Education is not the goal. The goal is a populace is able to improve their position in life and to live life on the terms of success that they define for themselves. Education is the best way that we have of doing this today.

The education system we are building today is failing to enable opportunities and is instead a system of hardening power structures and socio-economic positions. President Truman anticipated this, nearly 70 years ago:

If the ladder of educational opportunity rises high at the doors of some youth and scarcely rises at the doors of others, while at the same time formal education is made a prerequisite to occupational and social advance, then education may become the means, not of eliminating race and class distinctions, but of deepening and solidifying them

Publicly funded online universities (such as AU, OU, OUNL) have to date been the most successful systems in enabling educational access to learners who do not fit the traditional learner profile. While a number of traditional universities have recently started using the rhetoric of targeting and supporting under-represented students, open universities have been doing it since the 1960s (and some systems prior to that).

I hope that the new Alberta provincial leaders, and counterparts globally, would recognize and support the revolutionary and real life impact that open universities have had on the quality of life of many learners. It’s discouraging to see that at the exact point where many state and provincial leaders around the world start to recognize the need for improving education access, those systems that have been serving this mission for 50 years risk being cut off at the knees by limited vision and appropriate government support. Fortunately, early indications suggest that the government in Alberta is starting to listen: “”I take this situation seriously,” Sigurdson [Advanced Education Minister] told Metro. “The Alberta government is ready to work with the university and help it become more sustainable.”"