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'People value the presence of the university': Athabasca region closely watching staffing location dispute


County officials hope the province and Athabasca University administrators are able to come to a meaningful resolution that keeps the school in the northern Alberta community.

Brian Hall, Athabasca County reeve, said not only is the town watching the tense exchange between the university and the province but the entire region is.

"The folks that come and work for the university change the dynamic of the community," he said. "We certainly feel it."

The university acts as an important economic driver for the community, Hall said. He hopes the government and university can come to a resolution that preserves some local in-person positions to help the local economy without losing the post-secondary institution.

"The community has asked to preserve jobs that existed here," Hall said. "(Our) goals and the university's goals are not mutually exclusive."

"(We don't want) a return to 1984, but to protect a number of jobs that are very reasonably done from the community and from the facilities that Athabasca University has here," he added.

Hall said that before the pandemic, the school had around 500 people on-site, but that has shrunk to about 300 overtime.

"It's a beautiful campus," Hall said. "Athabasca is a great place to live."

In 2011, a new $30 million space was built to house the 72,000-square-foot Academic Research Centre, which aims to promote excellence in distance learning.

Hall said community members rallied together to get that campus expansion built to help solidify the university's ability to grow and provide opportunities for local employment.

"That's the result of community support," he told CTV News Edmonton. "At that moment, there was a risk that the community identified that the university would outgrow its space."

"People value the presence of the university and want them to be here."

According to Hall, the university is one of the cheapest for the government to fund, given its success as Canada's largest online university.

Alberta's Advanced Education minister previously asked the university for a concrete plan by June 30 outlining how the school's physical presence in Athabasca would be expanded.

Demetrios Nicolaides told The Canadian Press that university administrators provided him with a plan devoid of any financial asks or cost implications with moving staff.

The province was willing to help the university with whatever it wanted, including money, to relocate 500 employees to the small town.

On Thursday, the minister said in a statement to CTV News Edmonton that the offer remains on the table, and he is open to "alternatives," as the September deadline for Athabasca University to submit a comprehensive strategic plan to the province looms.

"We originally deferred to the university to create a plan to strengthen their presence within the town," Nicolaides said. "But they failed to answer questions posed by government and did not have a clear timeline or plan to have senior administrative functions based in the town."

"In the absence of a plan, we have been forced to develop our own roadmap," he added. "Alberta's government looks forward to collaborating with and supporting the university in any ways necessary, to achieve the goals we have set out for them, as we await their new plan to be submitted by Sept. 30."

Failure to move the staff back to the community would mean the school risks losing its $3.4 million monthly provincial grant, which the school's president has indicated represents a quarter of total funding — that, if lost, could sink the post-secondary.

Peter Scott, Athabasca University president, said in a video statement posted to the university's website last week that moving staff back to Athabasca would "add absolutely nothing to the university."

Currently, 24 per cent of the university's staff live and work in the Athabasca region, helping 40,000 students that predominantly learn online.

"The minister is essentially taking taxpayer dollars and our learners' tuition to fix something that's not broken," he said.

"Athabasca University is a successful remote-work organization. It isn't clear to me why the minister would target an online, digital university and tamper, seek to micromanage its successful cost-effective model."

Bryan Alary, a university spokesperson, said in a statement to CTV News Edmonton that Scott looks forward to meeting with the province to discuss the issue.

"Athabasca University (AU) remains hopeful that the minister is open to finding a mutually agreeable path forward for AU and its learners as this issue has created significant stress for our AU community," Alary said.

With files from CTV News Edmonton's Chelan Skulski and The Canadian Press Top Stories

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