The Emergence of the Open University Concept in Alberta

Robert Runté, M.Ed. Thesis, University of Alberta, 1981.


The central research question of the present study was to determine how Athabasca University was able to survive as an institution after the loss of its original mandate as a satellite university, and how it came to adopt an 'open' or 'distance learning' university model in what would appear to have been an unfavourable political, social, economic, and historical climate.

To address this question, Mayer Zald's 'political economy' model of organizational change was adopted. This led to an examination of the 'ideological' context of trends in higher education in North America, focusing on two basic theoretical issues: (1) the dominance o the 'human capital' model, and (2) the role of higher education in social mobility and social tracking, and the concern over equality of educational opportunity.

From a review of the literature, three basic models of the function of higher education were developed: (1) the traditional 'enlightenment' model, which views higher education as consumption and stresses the 'pursuit of knowledge for its own sake'; (2) the 'human capital' model, which views expenditures on higher education as investment in the nation's human resources; and (3) the 'manpower' model, which views higher education as a worthwhile investment only when it is tied specifically to the economy's manpower requirements.

An analysis of University Affairs was undertaken for the period 1959 - 1979, to produce a history of the major developments in Canadian higher education. This was followed by a similar analysis of trends in higher education in Alberta, with special attention to the roles of the 'education elite', the Social Credit government (until 1971), and the Progressive Conservative cabinet (after 1971).

An analysis of the emergence of Athabasca University was then undertaken, based on historical documentary research. A number of factors were identified as 'necessary but not sufficient' for Athabasca University's survival.

A review of the literature on the Open University of England was undertaken to describe the conditions under which that institution emerged, and to describe the original 'open university' model. The situation in England was found to have differed significantly from conditions which existed in Alberta during the emergence of Athabasca university. It was then demonstrated that the 'open university' model adopted by Athabasca University was also significantly different from that adopted in England.

The major finding of the thesis was that Athabasca University did not represent a dramatic departure from the mainstream of higher education practice in North America or the importation of a model from England. Rather, the open university model adopted by Athabasca University was the product of local developments, and compatible with the 'ideological' context of higher education in Alberta.

The emergence of Athabasca University was found to have major significance for the models of higher education. As Athabasca University operated in a manner not fully explainable under the 'enlightenment', 'human capital', or 'manpower' models, a fourth model was required to describe its operation, and this was designated the 'consumerism' model. Under the consumerism model, higher education is again viewed as consumption rather than investment, but differs from the enlightenment model in that higher education systems are mass rather than elite institutions.

Athabasca University's contribution to equality of education opportunity was found to be ambiguous. Under the consumerism model, the issue of equality of educational opportunity is seen as irrelevant.