The Alberta government has revised its local employment targets for a northern Alberta university focused on delivering distance education.
Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides wants Athabasca University to approve a new funding agreement by the end of November that sets more modest local employment targets for administrative and executive staff.
The revised investment management agreement, or IMA, sent to AU administration late Thursday ties nine per cent of the institution’s operating funding to achieving 10 per cent increases in local employment, year-over-year, for three years. It also specifies that half of the university’s executives live and work full-time in Athabasca.
‘I think any reasonable and rational person that would take a look at those metrics would say that yeah, this is very achievable,” Nicolaides said in an interview Friday.
Currently, 25 per cent of the institution’s 1,200 employees live in the town about 90 minutes north of Edmonton.
The original IMA, sent last summer, set a target of having 65 per cent of AU employees working full-time in Athabasca by 2025.
It came after former premier Jason Kenney disavowed AU’s “near-virtual strategy” at a town hall in March. Kenney stated that his government would enhance the institution’s presence in the town, reflecting the wishes of many residents who feared how losing well-paying jobs would hurt the local economy.
However, many AU employees who work virtually outside the community raised concerns about the possibility they would be forced to move.
At the time, university president Peter Scott said it was unrealistic to relocate 500 people and their families within that timeframe to a town of 3,000.
On Friday, Scott wasn’t prepared to speak about the IMA since the board hadn’t seen it yet.
Nicolaides said he is eager to get the IMA signed and implemented. He said Athabasca University is the only Alberta post-secondary institution without a signed funding agreement.
Hub for northern research
While AU’s focus would remain on delivering distance post-secondary education to 40,000 students, the university is working on a proposal to create a new research and innovation centre at its Athabasca headquarters.
The centre would be a hub for academics interested in researching northern Alberta issues like health care and water quality.
Scott said this would be a better way to strengthen AU’s presence in Athabasca than relocating existing staff.
“That’s where we would like to see the real jobs coming into the north for things that really matter, things that could be sustainable and things that could be new,” Scott said in an interview with CBC News on Friday.
“It isn’t the same as forcing people to go back into cubicles that they don’t want to. It is about creating new things that really will help change the change the dynamic in the north of this province.”
Nicolaides said he would like to hear more details about the northern research hub proposal after the IMA is signed.
The AU board of governors has its next meeting scheduled for Dec. 9, but Nicolaides wants them to meet by the end of November. He plans to attend so he can be available to answer questions and tweak the proposed agreement if required.