After faculty vote, hope for a rethink of call centre model at Athabasca

CAUT Bulletin, Vol. 61, No. 8, October 20, 2014

Six months after the university first approved setting up call centres, faculty members voted on Sept. 17 to halt the rollout plans, until an ad hoc committee convened last year to study the implications of introducing the centres reports back on its conclusions. [Wavebreakmedia /]

A vote to temporarily halt ongoing implementation of a controversial “call centre” model for tutoring at Alberta’s Athabasca University is a long-deserved win for collegial governance, according to critics of the plan.

Concerned faculty members introduced a motion at a Sept. 17 meeting of the university’s General Faculty Council, calling for an immediate halt to implementation so that “discussion, consultation and recommendation” could take place.

The motion passed, forcing administrators to rethink how and when, or if ever, the model will go into widespread use at the university.

“The board tried to impose a major change in pedagogy without consulting the faculty council,” said Lawton Shaw, president of Athabasca University Faculty Association. “Such an action is ultra vires, and (the vote) sent a big message. It was unprecedented and very exciting.”

Administrators first started reviewing the university’s delivery of distance education about two years ago, with an eye to modernization, Shaw said.

A sub-committee of the faculty council was tasked with studying the implications of introducing a “student success centre” across various faculties.

But Athabasca’s board of governors approved a three-year plan in March 2014, which included implementation of a call centre, and began rolling out the plan in some science courses, even though the committee has not reported back on its findings.

That move stirred controversy over the merits of the system, which can eliminate a one-on-one student/tutor relationship. Instead, students who call or email for assistance are issued a reference number and put in contact with a non-specific academic. In the courses where higher numbers of students are enrolled, Shaw said students could be bounced between many different individuals, with no consistent approach.

The concept is also less acceptable to teachers in the humanities or social sciences, he added.

“They’re pretty unanimous that this doesn’t work. You can’t teach English through a call centre.”

Shaw is hopeful interim president Peter MacKinnon will heed the message sent by the vote.

“(It)…confirms the faculty association’s view that the choice of course delivery model is fundamentally an academic matter, subject to faculty council authority,” he said, also noting that over the last two years, “the university has ignored this aspect of collegial governance. We fully expect the univer­sity to follow the direction given in the motion.”

The Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 3911, which represents academic experts and tutors at the school, has also filed a formal grievance with administrators over the issue.

The sub-committee’s report has been promised for delivery at the next faculty council meeting.

NOTE: CAUT (Canadian Association of University Teachers) is a national body representing 68,000 academic and general staff at more than 120 universities and colleges across Canada. AUFA (Athabasca University Faculty Association) is a member of CAUT.