Question Period – May 8, 2018 Athabasca University – Keeping Jobs in Athabasca

Athabasca University – Keeping Jobs in Athabasca 

Mr. Piquette: Well, thank you, Mr. Speaker. Athabasca University provides Albertans with a high-quality university education no matter where they live. In my riding it is also a pillar of our community, providing high-quality jobs and educational opportunities. The staff of AU and the greater Athabasca community are grateful for the support our government has provided to keep the university strong in Athabasca. However, recently there have been concerns over professional jobs being lost to big urban centres. What is the government doing to make sure that Athabasca University is sustainable and that jobs in Athabasca are protected?

The Speaker: The hon. Minister of Advanced Education.

Mr. Schmidt: Thank you, Mr. Speaker, and thank you to the member for the question. He’s been a powerful advocate for Athabasca University and the town of Athabasca. We’re proud of the work that we’ve done to put AU back on track and to keep it in the town of Athabasca. We commissioned a third-party review, written by Dr. Ken Coates, and we’ve been working with AU to implement its recommendations. We’ve made clear that as progress is being made, jobs in the town of Athabasca must be protected. The Coates report calls for enhancing the role of Athabasca University in Athabasca and states that “AU should be able to maintain if not expand the size of its operations in the Town of Athabasca.”

The Speaker: First supplemental.

Mr. Piquette: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Given that under the previous Conservative government there were grave concerns about roller coaster funding and the long-term financial sustainability of AU, what has the government done to provide financial stability?

Mr. Schmidt: Well, we know that one of the favourite Conservative pastimes was making cuts to postsecondary education, and that made the problems at Athabasca University worse. We’ve been proud to increase our funding by 2 per cent for our universities and colleges every year that we’ve been in government, including at Athabasca University. We were very pleased to see that the financial reports from AU last year were positive, and thanks to our support, they are now on much more stable financial footing. If the Conservatives ever got the chance again, they’d make more cuts and undo the progress that we’ve made at Athabasca University.

The Speaker: Second supplemental.

Mr. Piquette: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Given that the Coates report provides a way forward for Athabasca University to thrive in the years to come, what is the minister doing to make sure that the third-party report is being followed through on?

The Speaker: The hon. minister.

Mr. Schmidt: Well, thank you, Mr. Speaker. We’re working closely with Athabasca University’s new president and board chair to see this work through. AU has been consulting and recently presented a strategic plan, which outlines a path forward and clear goals and objectives through 2022. I’ll be visiting Athabasca in the coming weeks and providing further updates on our government’s support for Athabasca University, and I look forward to having the hon. member there with me.

Athabasca Advocate – March 6, 2018

‘Empty desks’ concern AU union; AUFA asks MLA to take action on alleged job relocations

Joseph Quigley

The Athabasca University Faculty Association (AUFA) is asking for government intervention to keep jobs local. Members of the AUFA brought forward their concerns of jobs moving out of the campus in Athabasca to Edmonton during a provincial budget consultation Feb. 27 at the Town of Athabasca office.

“What we’re seeing now is positions that have traditionally been in Athabasca are now moving to Edmonton,” AUFA secretary David Powell said to Athabasca-Sturgeon-Redwater MLA Colin Piquette, who was hosting the consultation session.

“They’re (Athabasca University) saying ‘we love Athabasca’and then quietly moving away jobs.” Powell also said the government could intervene by tying conditions to funding for Athabasca University (AU).

“The university has lots of really exciting, cool new ideas, and they need money for that,” Powell said. “You can attach strings to that money.”

According to Powell, although support and administrative jobs largely remain in Athabasca, the higher-paying professional and executive positions are moving away and are no longer advertised as location-specific to Athabasca.

“Although they’re talking a great deal about the town, what they’re doing is they’re sort of detaching the jobs from the area,” Powell said in an interview, adding it is a longterm trend the AUFA first noticed in 2014. Powell said he is working to gather statistics on positions leaving Athabasca, but could not provide them before publish time.

AU communications director Chris McLeod said the university remains committed to Athabasca. “We’re based in Athabasca; our headquarters are in Athabasca; a large number of our staff are in Athabasca,” McLeod said in an interview. “Nothing in the works that’s been occurring that changes that.” However, McLeod said AU is adaptable in terms of where it hires.

“As any employer, whether that’s AU or somewhere else, you want to make sure you’re attracting the best staff we can. We have to be adaptable around what that looks like,” McLeod said, adding the university might be flexible if an outstanding professor wanted to work part-time in Athabasca and part-time from somewhere else. “I don’t think we’d want to limit our ability to attract great people.”

McLeod also said the university does not keep track of any statistics relating to staff working away from Athabasca. The subject of AU’s presence in Athabasca was a focus in the independent third-party review conducted by Ken Coates last year.

The report, publicly presented last June, said the university should develop a “more focused presence” in Athabasca, but also suggested “AU relocate selected core AU activities to AU offices in the Edmonton region.” The final of 13 recommendations in the Coates report was to produce for the AU board of governors of a fully costed plan for an enhanced and focused presence in the Town of Athabasca by May 1.

Powell said in an interview the report carried forward an implication that professional jobs at the university would move out of Athabasca. “That’s the direction they’re going in,” Powell said. “That doesn’t mean there will be no professional jobs in Athabasca, but there’s more empty offices now than I’ve ever seen.”

He added this is an issue because of how prominent of an employer AU is in Athabasca, and members of the AUFA identify strongly with the town. “We grew up here and we strongly identify with the community,” Powell said.

Piquette said in an interview the province has done a lot for Athabasca University and the future of the school is secure.

But Piquette added the information relayed by the AUFA at the meeting was concerning. “Work needs to be done to ensure all the positions that make sense to be in Athabasca are here,” he said. “I think it’s totally legitimate that we encourage higher-income, high-tech type jobs in local communities. There needs to be a range of employment opportunity available.”


Member’s Statement May 1, 2017 – 2 Year Retrospective

As we approach the second anniversary of our government and my own as an MLA, I’d like to take a few moments to reflect on some of the progress that’s been made in my own riding of Athabasca-Sturgeon-Redwater.

When I was first elected, there were many outstanding issues, some long overdue, that needed to be addressed. For instance, the bridge over the Athabasca River on highway 813 had been in need of replacement since my father was the MLA. Now, thanks to the commitment of our government to make good on years of previous neglect, this is finally happening.

The completion of highway 63’s twinning and the multiple upgrades and curve reductions on highway 28 have made driving much safer for my constituents and indeed for all those who live and work in northeastern Alberta.

Two years ago Athabasca University’s status was uncertain. Now, thanks to our new government, a sustainable future has been assured for the university and for the community that depends on it.

Happily, I would need more than two minutes to list all the improvements to health care facilities, schools, and seniors’ facilities that we have been fortunate to receive as well. These investments speak well to the government’s commitment to the health, education, and well-being of rural Albertans.

The Industrial Heartland is not only of utmost strategic importance to Alberta’s long-term prospects; its local importance cannot be overstated. Thanks to our continued support for the North West Refinery’s phase 1, our petrochemicals diversification program, and, of course, our success in reframing our reputation as a responsible energy producer, investor confidence has been restored and new projects announced. But with increasing development in the Industrial Heartland, traffic has reached critical levels, severely impacting workers, local residents, and jeopardizing future growth. Working closely with municipal and industry partners, we have introduced badly needed intersection improvements to help clear congestion and improve safety.

We’ve made great progress on these issues and on many others, of course, but there’s always much more work that needs to be done, and we will continue towards those goals.