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Union opposes forced relocation of staff: Athabasca University

The Athabasca University Faculty Association (AUFA) has declared its opposition to “the notion of forced relocation of staff,” amid a standoff between Athabasca University (AU) and the provincial government, which recently directed AU to move hundreds of university employees to the town of Athabasca.

“Anyone who moves to Athabasca should do so voluntarily, whether this is managed upon hiring or as a result of meaningful incentives,” wrote AUFA President Rhiannon Rutherford and Past President David Powell, in a recent blog post.

The union leaders deplored that the university administration did not consult meaningfully with faculty and staff or share more information about the government’s directive – including the risk of losing provincial funding – before fighting back publicly.

They urged the university administration and the province to be more transparent and open by releasing, in their entirety, all relevant documents such as the draft talent management plan submitted by AU, and the letter with the Minister’s directives.

In an August 7 media report, Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides announced that the province will move forward with mandating the relocation of 500 AU staff to the small town that is the post-secondary institution’s namesake.

This week, he walked back the government’s threat to cut $3.4-million in monthly funding to the country’s largest online university if it did not move academic staff to Athabasca.

And he signaled a willingness to negotiate: “I would indeed like to see, at a bare minimum, senior executives and administrative staff be based in the town, as they have been for the past several decades.”

AU President Peter Scott had warned that the government’s demand that 65 per cent of the institution’s employees work out of Athabasca by 2024/25 could ruin the university by draining critical funds and resources and making it harder to recruit top talent.

Scott was recruited eight months ago to implement AU’s virtual campus vision, which enables the university administration to save money by recruiting faculty anywhere to lead online classes, and shift infrastructure costs to academic staff, who can work wherever they choose to live.

AUFA has historically been in favour of AU maintaining its presence in Athabasca, and long advocated for a portion of new hires to report to offices in the Athabasca area. Town residents formed a pressure group two years ago, to advocate for a rejuvenation of the university’s campus in Athabasca.

According to AUFA President Rhiannon Rutherford and Past President David Powell, the relocation of the academic workforce and their families to the Athabasca region is impossible in such a such a short amount of time.

To make relocation appealing to university staff, they urged the provincial government to “include inducements and flexible models such as hybrid work from office and work from home” in their plan.

AU serves 40,000 students and 24 per cent of its 1,200-strong work force currently lives in the Athabasca region.