Friday, September 9, 2022

Should I take a job at Athabasca University?

Every year, I receive phone calls from a couple of dozen candidates considering taking a job at Athabasca University (AU). Usually, these folks find me through this blog or word of mouth.

So, as the academic job-hunting season begins, I thought I’d take the opportunity to write down the pros and cons of taking a job at AU. These comments are mostly directed at folks considering a professorial job.


Working from home:
Pre-pandemic, the vast majority of academic staff worked from home offices). Although the majority of staff live in Alberta, recently staff have been permitted to work anywhere in Canada. This means you can stay in your home community. 

At the time of writing, the university’s Board is engaged in an ill-chosen bun fight with the provincial government over the ongoing loss of jobs in the town of Athabasca (where the university’s headquarters is located). The government wanted, at one point, 65% of staff to work from there (despite there being inadequate housing stocks and office space). It is unclear how this dispute is going to play out or how it will affect where academic staff can live. You’ll definitely want to ask about this in your interview.

Setting your own schedule: For the most part, instruction at AU is asynchronous and text mediated. Since you don’t have to appear at a fixed time each week to lecture, you can largely set your own schedule. Start early or late. Work in the middle of the night. Take your kids to school or you mom to the doctor. As long as you get your work done and show up for the small number of fixed meetings, you basically can organize your life however you want.

Good benefits and pension plans: The benefits plan for faculty is pretty good, particularly in terms of vision, eyecare, and drug coverage (although costs are reimbursed, not pre-paid).

The pension plan is also pretty good, although you’ll pay about 11% of your salary into the plan. You can collect a full pension when (1) you are at least 55, and (2) your age and years of services equal 80. A full pension is 70% of your average salary during your five best consecutive years of employment. You can take a reduced pension any time after 55 if you have not yet met the 80 factor.

Tenure and promotion is the norm: The vast majority of hires (>99%) can expect to get tenure and promotion. Based on my 18 years of experience, I’d go so far as to say you have to actively and repeatedly fuck-up not to get tenured. That is not to say you don’t have to work—just that the bar is set at a very manageable level.

Faculty are typically hired with a four-year probationary appointment. After a successful review, you receive tenure. You can choose when to apply for promotion in rank. If you apply for and receive promotion before your tenure review, then you also automatically get tenure. Promotion is also rarely denied although the process is more rigorous than just tenure.

Financial stability: AU is financially stable (despite a history of the administration crying insolvency). In 2021/22, AU posted a surplus of $10.4m on expenses of $150.6m. This was the sixth straight surplus and ninth surplus in 10 years. AU has an accrued surplus (i.e., cash in the bank) of $46.9m.

Government funding of AU has been stable over the past few years. Only about 35% of institutional revenue comes from grants (the largest chunk is tuition based). Enrollments have been falling (about 9% per year for last two years) but the nature of AU’s business model is that the costs of revenue losses due to declining enrollment are borne mostly by the tutor pool (i.e., permanent, part-time academics with variable teaching loads).


Poor wages: Overall, wages are low and have fallen significantly behind inflation. The table below compares the compounded cost-of-living adjustments (COLA) to faculty wages and Alberta inflation from 2013 to 2022. Basically, the purchasing power of staff wages at AU has dropped by ~20% over 10 years.

Going forward, the COLA for adjustment for 2023 will total between 2.75% and 3.25%. Unfortunately, inflation is presently running about 8%, so expect another big loss in purchasing power.

Compounding the erosion of purchasing power is that starting salaries in nominal dollars are roughly the same as they were in 2007. There is also evidence of a gender wage gap (but zero interest by the institution in addressing it). While the institution will often say that salaries are negotiable, in practice that is not the case.

Poor Treatment and Low Morale: The treatment of staff by the university is, in a word, awful. I’ve been on the union grievance committee for a decade. While I can’t tell you everything I’ve seen, here are a few illustrative examples of how individual staff have been treated:
Over the past five years, the employer has twice driven collective bargaining to impasse and the verge of a strike by demanding huge concessions. In between those rounds of bargaining, the employer also tried union busting with an effort to carve two-thirds of the union’s members out of the bargaining unit (and thus out of the pension plan).

The most recent survey of staff (Spring 2022) by the faculty association finds only 20% of staff trust the senior executive and only 39% agree with the statement that “my morale is high.” The employer no longer does staff surveys because the results were so consistently bad.

Workloads have also gone up, particularly for administrative staff, due to COVID. More subjectively, I’m seeing a widespread withdrawal of citizenship behaviours and effort by my colleagues. Essentially, they are realizing AU doesn’t care for them and are (understandably) reciprocating in kind. The upside is the union is tenacious, fights hard, and has strong member support.

Isolation: Working from home with essentially no in-person contact with co-workers or students is extremely isolating and may not be for everyone. Further, AU has no functional orientation process for new staff and most of the institution’s processes do not operate in the way that the various policies and procedures (often decades old) say that they do.

COVID has limited the opportunity for staff to meet socially (which is how we used to cope with the isolation and get our questions answered). In theory, more experienced colleagues in your area should provide you with an orientation and social introductions. In practice, the experiences of new hires is very uneven.

So, with those thoughts and the poor state of the academic job market in mind, one approach to a job offer might be:
  • if you have no other option, take the AU job but stay on the market, and
  • if you have other options, give the pros and cons of AU very careful thought.
-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, September 2, 2022

Reflections on the efficacy of joint committees during COVID

 As Labour Day rolls around, I’ve been giving some thought to the two-and-half years I spent as a worker rep on Athabasca University’s joint health and safety committee (JHSC). While the employer had long had a JHSC, it was effectively non-functional until the government changed the rules to make JHSCs mandatory (which better empowered the worker reps). 

I say non-functional because workplaces hadn’t been inspected for years, there were dozens and dozens of unidentified and uncontrolled hazards, and staff did not receive basic OHS training (among other deficiencies) The single biggest OHS issue during my time on the committee was, not surprisingly, COVID. 

Early COVID response

When I raised the issue of COVID with the committee in early 2020 (before the pandemic arrived in Alberta), I basically got laughed out of the room by the employer reps and no action was taken. Some worker reps had their union pressure the employer to act (including transitioning to working from home, suspending travel and eliminating the sick note requirement). It also published a blog to alert workers to things they could do in the absence of an institutional response. 

This approach is pretty in keeping with what we know about the most effective tactics worker reps can adopt to get achieve change through JHSCs (which can only make recommendations). The employer basically adopted the union’s recommendations a week later and AU transitioned to working from home.

Transitioning to Working from Home

This transition to working from home was not without its difficulties, including several OHS issues. These included serious ergonomic issues as staff were now working from wherever they could find space in their homes and many were using small laptop computers, sometimes with inadequate internet service. These issues lingered unattended for months. 

There was also a significant workload issue as certain institutional processes were not easily adaptable to online delivery coupled with a huge surge in enrollments. These issues were essentially left to individual staff members to sort out and numerous staff reported very high working hours and rapid burnout.

Workload problems were compounded by the departure of 53 staff (5% or so) who had taken a buyout option, overall heightened stress due to the pandemic disruption (including school and daycare closures), and social isolation. All of these issues were left unattended for long periods of time.

The union continued to work with its members to identify issues the university would need to address when it re-opened. As it happens, AU did not ever return to in-person working and the university used the two-years to slowly advance its plan to eliminate on-site work entirely (including closing two of its course campuses and classifying most of its staff at home-based workers). 

Aerosol spread and hazard protocols

During COVID it became clear that the main method of transmission of the virus was through aerosol spread (although transmission by touching and droplets was also possible). Very loosely speaking, aerosol spread basically means the virus hitches a ride from an infected person to others on water molecules that an infected person exhales. The molecules with the virus can then be inhaled by people in the surrounding area. If you inhale enough of the virus, you too can become infected. This is a bigger issue in enclosed spaces than outdoors because virus-laden molecules typically dissipate faster and further outdoors.

The easiest way to understand aerosol spread is to think of it as farting. When you fart, the smelly particles are initially concentrated near the “farter”. But, overtime, the particles spread throughout the room and everyone can smell it. Simply being 6 feet apart (a common COVID protocol to prevent droplet spread from a sneeze or cough) does not protect from aerosol spread. If Travis “farts” and Stacey is 8 feet away across the room, Stacey is eventually going to smell it, right? Same idea with aerosol spread of COVID. The longer you are in close proximity to someone “farting” COVID, the higher the concentration of the virus-laden molecules, and the greater the risk of contracting COVID.

For this reason, effective hazard-control protocols for COVID include not working in enclosed spaces with other people. No exposure means no risk of transmission. If you are sharing spaces, other controls include enhanced ventilation (to reduce the concentration of the virus in the air) and masking. Masking prevents the virus from getting into the air (concentration is lower). And it also prevents someone from inhaling as many particles (which reduces the risk of catching COVID). Vaccination does not seem to control spread very much with Omnicron (so it is not really an effective control strategy); its primary value seems to be reduced severity of the disease.

Re-opening and COVID protocols

In September of 2021, government changes that gutted the effectiveness of JHSCs came into effect. You could literally see the energy go out of the JHSC as the tools the worker members used to keep the employer attentive to its OHS obligations effectively disappeared (e.g., there is no longer any requirement for workplace inspections).

In February of 2022, Minister of Advanced Education Demetrios Nicolaides directed all PSEs to end masking and vaccination protections. Directing post-secondary institutions to end mandatory masking eliminated one of the most effective controls on COVID transmission and placed post-secondary workers at risk of COVID. It also forced institutions to violate the OHS Act because they were no longer controlling workers’ exposure to COVID to the degree reasonably practicable. The Minister of Advanced Education has no authority to direct PSEs to act in this way or to waive the OHS obligations.

In May of 2022, Athabasca University altered its COVID protocols (presumably in response to the Minister’s direction). While most staff were expected to continue working from home due to the danger of infection, those staff who were on campus were no longer required to wear masks. This announcement basically says “it is too dangerous for you to come to work but, if you are onsite, don’t worry about wearing a mask”. This contradiction was so stark and evident that staff openly mocked it. It also dramatically increased the risk of aerosol transmission of COVID in the workplace.

The university’s Joint Health and Safety Committee was not consulted about this change. A review of Athabasca University’s hazard assessment revealed no consideration of aerosol transmission or controls. When this was brought to the university’s attention with a request to reinstate masking on campus, these concerns were dismissed and COVID control were further relaxed!

OHS Complaint and Inaction

Canada’s OHS system makes workers and employers jointly responsible for identifying and controlling hazards (the internal responsibility system). When this system fails, workers can file a complaint with government OHS inspectors (the external responsibility system). The existence of government oversight reflects that disputes about hazard identification and control can arise, sometimes via an innocent error and sometimes via a deliberate decision by the employer.

As worker co-chair, I filed an OHS complaint about the lack of controls around the aerosol spread of COVID (this is is how the system works). OHS investigated (without any discussion with workers) and declined to take action. 

When I finally got to speak with the officer to find out what she’d decided (because there is no report-back system and you have to say certain magical words to get the officer to call you back), her explanation of inaction was:
  1. The employer did not identify aerosol spread on its hazard assessment and she could not force them to add it on, and
  2. She could not direct the employer to implement masking (which was explicitly noted in my complaint was NOT my request—I just wanted direction to the employer to develop a control strategy) in the absence of direction by the Chief Medical Officer of Health (CMOH). 
She also noted that she did not see many workers sharing spaces and that they were seated six feet apart. The OHS officer’s explanation for her inaction was defective in a number of ways:
  1. An employer cannot evade controlling a hazard simply by leaving it off a hazard assessment. Allowing this kind of evasion opens the door to employers ignoring all hazards by simply leaving them off the hazard assessment (like come on!). The OHS officer could well have identified the hazard the employer missed and directed the employer to develop a control strategy (which was my explicit request).
  2. The presence or absence of masking guidelines by the CMOH does not limit the ability of OHS officers to direct employer to develop a control strategy for a hazard. Masking is the obvious control, but the employer could also have improved ventilation or prohibited shared spaces. What is likely going on here is that OHS officers have been directed (or perceive themselves to be directed) not to require employers to implement control for the aerosol spread of COVID because of the government’s decision to let’er rip.
  3. The assertion that being six feet apart was an adequate control confuses controls for droplet spread with controls for aerosol spread. I could not have been clearer about this in my complaint. This raises questions about competence in my view.
  4. The absence of many workers working in close proximity is basically saying “well, not too many workers are at risk…”. The OHS Act and Code does not contain a threshold of injury or death that is required before an employer must take action.
The upshot is that both the internal and external enforcement system failed. There is no appeal of the OHS decisions available because workers can only appeal an order, not the absence of an order. About the only bright spot here was that AU was intent on keeping staff off campus while it completed its transition to a near virtual working environment (i.e., 95% of staff working from home full time).

Surprise Re-opening
Over the summer of 2022, AU embroiled itself in a stupid and public fight with the provincial government of AU’s long-pterm efforts to reduce the number of jobs in the local community. As a part of AU’s efforts to resolve this dispute (which imperiled institutional funding), AU announced on August 30 that the remaining two campuses would be open effective September 6. 

As part of the surprise re-opening announcement, new COVID protocols were announced. Basically, they amount to extra cleaning (to address touch spread) and staying home when sick, which is ineffective since (1) COVID carriers are contagious before being symptomatic, and (2) many COVID carriers are asymptomatic. There are no controls for droplet or aerosol spread. Staff are allowed to voluntarily wear masks if they want:
AU no longer mandates wearing masks unless a hazard assessment dictates one is needed; however, we support you wearing a mask if you want to.
This approach individualizes responsibility for preventing the spread of COVID. It is just straight-up negligent because of the lack of droplet and aerosol controls. But the absence of any will by the government to enforce the OHS law means the employer can basically do whatever it wants.

Staff have little recourse except to (1) wear their own mask (the efficacy of which will be reduced because masking works best when everyone does it) or (2) try to avoid working on site if possible. Work refusals are unlikely to be effective since OHS has already refused to address aerosol spread and workers can choose to wear their own mask.

The only real option is for one of AU’s unions to file a grievance that AU is failing to address its obligation to provide a safe and healthy workplace under the OHS Act. That will take literally years to reach resolution and AU will likely use the OHS officer’s decision not to issue an order and a defence. Another option is for the unions to organize some kind of illegal walk out (an outcome that I judge to be unlikely).


The recent changes to the OHS Act and Code have rendered JHSCs largely useless (which was likely the intent). The government’s political decision to eliminate COVID protections have also rendered the external OHS system ineffective. Together, these factors will create a significant amount of unnecessary ill health (potentially with lifelong consequences). As an OHS researcher and practitioner, I gotta say, this just makes me despair and very happy that I'm close to retirement.

-- Bob Barnetson