A Letter to Hon. Lori Sigurdson from CUPE Local 3911 about the future of Athabasca University

This June, the CUPE Local 3911 Executive addressed Lori Sigurdson, the newly appointed Minister of Innovation and Advanced Education in a letter that detailed some of their concerns about the future of Athabasca University.


View the letter below:





"Dear Minister:


First we congratulate you on your appointment as the new government minister responsible for post-secondary education and your party on its resounding election win on May 5, 2015.  We see these events as boding well for the future of post-secondary education in Alberta.


Second, let us introduce ourselves.  We are the approximately 300 part-time continuing instructors (tutors, academic experts, and markers) who are employed by Alberta’s online university, Athabasca University (AU).  Our members are represented by CUPE Local 3911.  Although we are all part-time, we do most of the instruction of AU’s many students.  Many of us have advanced degrees and many of us have taught for a long time.  We consider our work critical to the success of AU and its students.  We are especially proud of AU’s mandate as an open access university which provides post-secondary education to many groups that may be excluded from traditional education, such as working people, stay at home parents, Aboriginal people, rural and northern residents, and students with disabilities.


We are quite knowledgeable about the current situation at AU, based on our own investigations as well as information provided to us by President Peter MacKinnon and his administrators.  We know that AU has accumulated some debt and that enrolment is in a slight decline.  We also know that in his consultations with the previous government, the President has emphasized a desire to have information technology reclassified as a capital expense in order to alleviate some of the debt burden.  We do have some reservations that administrative decisions are being based more and more on perceived financial factors and less and less on pedagogical factors, i.e., improving the quality of learning for students.


As part-time instructors, we also have some of our own issues.  A major one is the way in which what is known as the call centre or student success centre is being implemented at

AU.  AU was originally modelled on the Open University in England.  Tutors or part-time instructors were given “electronic classes” which they were personally responsible for, e.g., advising students, answering their questions, solving student problems, marking assignments, supporting student learning, etc.  The proposed AU call centre changes this notion of an online classroom by placing barriers between students and their instructors.  Instead of going directly to their tutors, students have to call a “help line”, which then directs them to someone who may or not be their tutor. 


The call centre also means a major change in the way tutors are paid.  Presently, tutors receive a salary based on the number of students assigned to them (“block pay”) plus additional pay for marking.  The call centre model pays all tutors according to submitted timesheets.  In some cases this has literally cut our tutor pay in half, a measure which we feel singles out and punishes the lowest earning people at AU for who do most of the teaching.


How the call centre is being implemented is also an issue for us.  We feel that this is not being done in a manner that follows the guidelines for university governance.  The administration has arbitrarily categorized the call centre as a purely administrative matter, rather than a pedagogical matter, and then is simply imposing it in the face of opposition, e.g., by the General Faculties Council.  We disagree with this categorization and methodology.  Especially troubling is that the President’s continued expansion of the call centre ignores a motion passed by the General Faculties Council on September 17, 2014, to halt further implementation of the call centre until more study was done of its impact on teaching and learning.  In fact, we have allied with the full-time faculty at AU (AUFA) in submitting a case for censure of the university to the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), based on what we see as violations of basic university governance principles and academic freedom.  The fact that CAUT has just announced that it is currently considering censure of AU supports our case.  You can find more information on this issue here:  https://www.cautbulletin.ca/en_article.asp?articleid=4007


In regard to governance, we also suggest that when considering new appointments to the Board of Governors at AU, you appoint public members who have a commitment to and experience with university education, who recognize the role of the General Faculties Council as an academic decision-making body, and who respect the contributions of all employee groups.  At this moment there is an opportunity to appoint a new Chairperson of the Board, and we ask that you take these concerns into consideration.


We realize that as a new minister in a new government you have many responsibilities.  Our request is straightforward.  We merely want to be meaningfully included in any subsequent discussion about the future of AU.  This could be discussions with us, discussions with us and our allies in AUFA and AUPE, or in a larger forum that also includes upper administration.  We think that our collective frontline experience of many years is a valuable contribution to improving the quality of student learning experiences at AU and we feel that the administration is not recognizing this value.  For example, a recent Task Force formed by the President did not have a single representative from the tutors, even though, as mentioned before, we do the bulk of the teaching at AU.  This report blames AU’s collective agreements with CUPE, AUFA, and AUPE as threatening the “sustainability” of AU, rather than addressing, for example, issues of financial mismanagement.


In conclusion, we look forward to hearing from you and to future collaborations with you in the interests of improving post-secondary education in Alberta, both at Athabasca University in particular and at other universities, colleges, and technical institutes across the province.  You or your representative can contact us any time through phone or email, at one of the email addresses or numbers below.  Thank you for consideration of our request."




Dr. Dougal MacDonald, Co-Chair CUPE 3911

doogmacd@shaw.ca; 780-668-7810


Dr. Ronnie Joy Leah, Co-Chair CUPE 3911

ronnijoy@telus.net; 403-670-0883


Dr. Robert Wiznura, Co-Chair CUPE 3911

wiznurar@shaw.ca; 780-266-4353

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