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Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, right, greets Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides in Edmonton on April 30, 2019. The Alberta government wants Athabasca University to get more staff work in the small northern town or risk losing millions of dollars in funding.JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

An Alberta online university facing a potential multimillion-dollar cut in a policy fight with the province says it will consider the government’s latest demand but has not committed to complying with it.

“Our executive team and members of our board of governors will review this material. We are committed to continuing to work with the (Advanced Education) ministry to find innovative ways to better meet the needs of our learners,” Athabasca University president Peter Scott said Wednesday in a statement.

Scott’s statement did not specifically say whether the university will abide by the direction given to it last Friday in a letter from Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides.

Alberta ups ante in mandate fight with Athabasca University, threatens funding cut

Nicolaides, in the letter, advised the online university’s board of governors that if it didn’t deliver by the end of September a plan to have more employees physically work in the town of Athabasca, it could face a cut to the $3.4-million monthly instalment of its base operating grant.

Nicolaides wants the university to have more of its staff and its executive members in the town, located 145 kilometres north of Edmonton, to fulfil the mandate of economic diversification that led to the university being relocated there from Edmonton 40 years ago.

Scott has rebuffed such direction since taking over the top job in January.

He has argued that demanding employees work in the town of fewer than 3,000 people does not further the mandate of quality education but in fact detracts from it by making it harder to recruit top-quality candidates.

Scott’s written response also suggests further fraying of the relationship between the province and the university in the standoff.

Scott noted the university responded, as requested, with details on such a plan by an earlier June 30 deadline, but never heard back from the province until the Friday letter from Nicolaides that warned of a possible funding cut.

“(Athabasca University) responded to the minister of advanced education’s request in the spring and delivered a draft talent management plan by the June 30 deadline. While we requested a followup meeting with the minister, the university did not receive a meeting or any feedback on the plan from the minister or the ministry,” wrote Scott.

The university did not respond to a request for an interview with Scott or a request for the June 30 submission.

Nicolaides’ office did not respond to a request for verification that it did not offer a followup meeting in July. It also did not respond to request for the June 30 submission.

The debate is over the university’s long-standing “near-virtual” plan.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the university instituted the plan to give employees more freedom over where they carried out their work. That plan was accelerated when the pandemic forced people to work from home.

In May, the province replaced Nancy Laird as Athabasca University board chair to accelerate the shift away from “near-virtual.” Laird was replaced by Calgary lawyer Byron Nelson.

Local residents have also taken up the fight.

The advocacy group Keep Athabasca in Athabasca University has argued for more local presence, concerned that a small fraction of about 1,200 school staff are left in the town.

The group hired a lobbyist to plead its case. In March, Premier Jason Kenney himself came to town to promise the province would make changes to bring people back.

Athabasca University has about 40,000 students.

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