Athabasca University has received much press as of late, most of it negative (see here and here). This media attention stems from concerns regarding the future financial situation of the university. For those who may be unfamiliar with Athabasca University, it is an open university dedicated to the removal of barriers to post-secondary learning through distance education. This social mission makes Athabasca University unique in Canada. This is what makes the current situation newsworthy. It is not just another university in financial trouble. Athabasca University embodies a set of social values of fundamental importance in Canadian society and its financial uncertainty says a lot about the commitment of the previous provincial government to these values. Hence it is important to put this negative press in the proper political context to adequately understand causes and effects as well as what is at stake.
Athabasca University, like a majority of post-secondary institutions in Canada, is a publicly-funded university. The public-university system exists to make post-secondary education affordable and accessible. It is ‘public’ in the sense that universities receive a public subsidy to offset the cost of operating the university allowing tuition rates to remain artificially low. This approach is rooted in a commitment to equality and the belief that society is best served by an educated population. The public-university system is also ‘public’ in the sense that universities are overseen by a publicly appointed board of governors which are supposed to ensure accountability.
Over the past twenty-years public funding for post-secondary education has precipitously declined in Canada from 80% to a national average of approximately 53%. The reasons for this decline vary by province but an underlying storyline is a neoliberal tale characterized by antipathy towards taxation and unhealthy obsession with austerity. Not surprisingly, tuition fees have crept up to cover the hole in university budgets. But tuition caps in many provinces, including Alberta, have limited the ability of universities to cover the reductions in public funding sending many institutions that lack the endowments or other revenue sources into a financial tailspin.
Looking more closely at funding levels among research universities in Alberta offers more clarity with regard to the situation faced by Athabasca University. Using enrollment numbers from 2014 and provincial operating grant forecasts for 2014-2015 a disparity in provincial support is evident when it comes to funding for full-time students:
University of Alberta: $19,355/student
University of Calgary: $19,154/student
University of Lethbridge: $13,928/student
Athabasca University: $4,640/student
The nature of the public university system and the historic underfunding of this system by the province of Alberta is important context for understanding the dilemmas and challenges that Athabasca University currently faces not least of which is how to stay true to our social mission of lowering the barriers that otherwise inhibit university education and lifelong learning in the midst of a funding regime that exerts upward pressure on tuition rates and top-down pressure to contain costs through lay-offs and hiring freezes. Athabasca is left between a rock and hard place: offloading costs to students (that is in itself a barrier), or gutting the university of the value embodied in its highly qualified and dedicated staff.
What is at stake here is more than Athabasca University. At risk are the values upon which our public university system rests. Failure to address these systemic problems will shift our post-secondary system evermore closer to a private, user-fee based system, a system at odds with the values Canadians share.