higher ed

Rough(y) times at Athabasca

The orange roughy

As someone who works at the UK Open University, I feel an affinity with other distance and open ed institutions globally. I have a particular affection and respect for Athabasca University, Canada’s version of the OU. I have known many smart people who work there, and admired their innovation in undertakings such as challenge exams, Athabasca University Press and IRRODL. So it has been particularly galling to see the political overreach of the Alberta Advanced Education Minister, Demetrios Nicolaides in demanding staff relocate to Athabasca and they reverse their online mode of working. That was bad enough, but was eventually settled, but this week with a callousness Alex Jones would admire, the Nicolaides installed board took the opportunity to fire President Peter Scott, while he was on compassionate leave, grieving the recent loss of his wife. This was seemingly without any consultation or warning.

I don’t have any inside information, I’m just going from the public appearance – because that’s the point, it’s the appearance that matters. And that appearance, to me at least, is of a heartless institution and senior management who are effectively puppets for Nicolaides. And that’s a very damaging perception, even if it may not be true behind the scenes. Who would want to work for Athabasca now? Who will want to stay there if they can leave? If they will do that publicly to the President when he is grieving, what will they do to you?

I’ve blogged about the different time cycles of higher ed and other businesses (notably tech companies) before. Higher ed operates along longer wavelengths, and this kind of institutional vandalism can take a long time to recover from. People remember, trust is lost, important institutional knowledge departs, and replacement is hard to come by. We often like to talk in terms of ecosystems in ed tech. It’s an over-used metaphor, but I’m going to borrow a lesson from ecology for an example here, bear with me.

The orange roughy is a deep sea fish, which was previously known as a slimehead. When it was discovered in vast quantities around New Zealand, something akin to a gold rush took place. It’s tasty and was in bountiful supply. The name was a bit dodgy, so in the best bit of rebranding since Erik the Red convinced a bunch of settlers to come live on a nice place he’d named Greenland, the slimehead was renamed orange roughy. Mmmm, orange roughy. With no prizes for guessing what happened, the roughy was overfished and was brought to near collapse. Some quotas have been introduced and planned fisheries rejected. It will take the roughy population a long time to recover.

Part of the problem, apart from the obvious greed, was that we simply didn’t know enough about the roughy. It turns out that it lives for a very long time (120 years), and may not reach sexual maturity until around 20-30 years old. But even then, more recent research reveals they may not do much of their reproduction until their 70s. So, if you take them out of circulation early on that has a lot of impact on future populations and they take a long time to replenish depleted numbers. They don’t breed in particularly large numbers, producing only about 10% of the amount of eggs of similar fish. They are simply not a very sustainable fish source because they take so long to breed and do so at low rates.

Returning to higher ed then, political intervention is often done for short term gain – we’ve seen this with numerous Conservative Ministers in the UK, and the Athabasca case is perhaps one of the most obvious direct examples of this tendency. But this action is done without knowledge or care of the environment they are affecting, or the potential long term consequences. Universities are institutions with long histories and long memories, and as with our friend the slimehead, careless action can take years to repair, or even worse, can result in collapse.

If you’re interested, Simon Buckingham Shum & Jon Dron have a petition against this political interference.


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