Clearly it is in the best interests of everyone who works for Athabasca University to have an increased student population registered at AU. There is no doubt that there are certain large demographic groups that could register if the appropriate courses and programs were offered. The point is, of course, is to first identify such groups, then to create the programs they require. Two initial suggestions follow. Further suggestions from members are welcome.
One potential student group is immigrants with higher education credentials from other countries that are not recognized in Canada. These include nurses, engineers, and doctors. They end up working at jobs they are highly over-qualified for, e.g., driving taxis, cleaning buildings. A recent analysis of 2006 Census data shows that just under one-quarter (24%) of employed foreign-educated, university-level immigrants were working in a regulated occupation that matched their field of study, compared to 62% of their Canadian-born counterparts. The Conference Board of Canada estimates that there are over 800,000 such immigrants and that their under-employment is costing Canada billions of dollars. It is likely that many people are very happy that their ageing parents are being very well cared for in seniors’ homes by attendants who are actually Registered Nurses but such caregivers are not being given credit or compensation for their impressive qualifications for the job. Yes, they could retake face-to-face courses in Canada but a lot of them have jobs they need to maintain and don't have extra time to upgrade. So could AU furnish the required "upgrades" to such people through online distance education? The possibility is well worth looking into.
Another potential student group is prisoners which would fit well with the fact that Athabasca University has engaged in many innovative education programs to promote social justice. Currently in Canada alone there are about 40,000 people incarcerated. In the 1980s, many universities across Canada, including AU, had ties to Canadian Correctional Educational programs, offering seminars in the humanities and social sciences, such as Introductory Sociology, at Drumheller Institution. Students across Canada could also enroll in correspondence courses, and occasionally, students and their guards were engaged in post-secondary studies at the same time. Given that incarcerated individuals disproportionately come from disadvantaged backgrounds, education programs allow them to improve their literacy and critical thinking skills, increasing their chances of rehbailitation. Education also helps to humanize the prison environment, as it empowers people with new forms of knowledge and enhances their social and communication skills. A former incarcerated AU student* noted that AU did not create barriers for those whose previous education was limited; access to university education was open. AU also provided a broad range of subjects for prisoners to choose from to enhance their educational experience and transcend their current situation.
(The above two suggestions were submitted by Dougal MacDonald and Natalie Sharpe. Let us know of any other potential student groups that you think AU might want to focus on.)