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AU Faculty Association expects mass layoffs

Provincial funding hit makes job losses almost inevitable for university staff
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Post-secondary institutions across the province have been asked to reduce expenditures drastically and it’s no different at Athabasca University, where the faculty association is concerned there will be hundreds of layoffs.

ATHABASCA - An expenditure reduction target handed down by the provincial government to Athabasca University administration could see hundreds of staff laid off in the very near future, according to the university’s faculty association.

The university is expected to find $34 million in savings over the next three years, with $28 million of that coming in the first year.

Athabasca University has not been singled out in this regard as post-secondary institutions across the province have been asked to reduce expenditures, many of which have taken the route of laying off hundreds of employees to meet the new financial realities. And while university president Neil Fassina has said options other than layoffs to reduce expenses are being looked at, the faculty association is sceptical.

“What they’re looking to implement is quite concerning. How does a university the size of Athabasca meet those targets? Our main concern is that these targets will affect our members in that there will be layoffs,” said Athabasca University Faculty Association president Jolene Armstrong.

To get to the $34 million target, 300 of the university’s 750 full-time staff would have to be laid off, she said.

“I don’t see many options. It’s a huge amount of money and the simplest way that would translate is through layoffs, which would result in a 40 per cent reduction in staff across the university, which would basically render the university dysfunctional.”

This in turn would result in negative effects on program delivery, which will inevitably effect the university’s reputation, leading to smaller enrolment numbers and less revenue, said Armstrong.

On top of that, the university would be on the hook for severance costs that would likely rise into the tens of millions.

“The point of origin is the government, who seem completely intent on destroying post-secondary in the province and the concern with Athabasca University is that there is an economic impact to the Town of Athabasca itself,” said Armstrong.

“The economic impact on the town itself, if 40 per cent of the staff are laid off, is catastrophic.”

Athabasca mayor Colleen Powell is also concerned for the local economy if drastic changes are made to the town’s largest employer.

“We would want the government to revisit the steep decrease in the funding, $28 million, which is putting at risk one of your most cost-effective universities in this province,” she said. “They do something unique that we can’t afford to lose. This is one of our treasures. You are also putting the economy of a rural area in Alberta at risk.”

Armstrong also points out AUFA is coming to the end of its current collective agreement, along with the two other unions, AUPE and CUPE, representing staff at the university and she wonders how much those upcoming negotiations are connected to the funding cuts.

“Our contract runs out at the end of June, so we’ll be giving notice to bargain shortly and entering into that exercise as well, with this hanging over our heads, which is disconcerting to say the least. And certainly, we see this as a ploy by the government to perhaps mandate some rollbacks of wages through that process,” she said.

Chris Zwick,TownandCountryToday.com

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Chris Zwick

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