Mojgan Rahbari-Jawoko is an Adjunct Professor at The Chang School of Continuing Education at Ryerson University and Social Policy & Administration, Immigration and EDI expert. Sara Asalya is the founder and executive director of the Newcomer Students Association and a graduate student at the department of Leadership, Higher and Adult Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. Alka Kumar is the manager of research and policy at the Newcomer Students Association, and as an adjunct consultant, she also works with organizations on projects to enhance inclusion, equity and social justice.

The global COVID-19 pandemic has massively disrupted post-secondary education, forcing teaching, support services and institutional programming to migrate to online platforms. Last March, in the middle of a semester, post-secondary students across Canada were suddenly told to relocate from their campuses and dormitories; almost a year later, with a second, more deadly wave ravaging Canada, it is difficult to speculate when a return to in-person operations will be possible.

The pandemic has exposed pre-existing fault lines rooted in systemic racism and discrimination; underlined the persistence and pervasiveness of associated barriers; and had a notable negative impact on vulnerable students’ academic success and general sense of belonging. Research so far has revealed the disproportionate negative effects of the pandemic on both post-secondary students and racialized groups. There is no doubt, then, that racialized students are paying a heavy price. Given that the reverberations of this ongoing pandemic will continue well into the future, further research is needed on the experiences of racialized post-secondary students to understand pandemic-related impacts and inequities in more depth.

The imminent question is, what can post-secondary institutions do to mitigate the harms caused by deficits in real inclusion for racialized, Indigenous and Black students? Such problem-solving must not just happen as a short-term COVID response; rather, this inflection point in history should be taken as an opportunity to make sustainable, systemic transformations.

What can post-secondary institutions do to mitigate the harms caused by deficits in real inclusion for racialized, Indigenous and Black students? Such problem-solving must not just happen as a short-term COVID response; rather, this inflection point in history should be taken as an opportunity to make sustainable, systemic transformations.

Inequitable effects of the COVID-19 pandemic

The pandemic has been harmful for post-secondary students, staff and faculty across the board. A study by the Toronto Science Policy Network found that almost 75 per cent of graduate students have experienced worsening mental health. An Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations poll of 2,700 students, faculty and academic librarians revealed fewer opportunities to earn income during the pandemic. Family care demands, work-life balance and general well-being and mental health were other key stressors for both students and faculty.

Marginalized students are at even higher risk of experiencing stress, anxiety and depression. Historically, the “achievement gap” between various student groups has led to differential retention rates and academic inequities for Canada’s post-secondary students. The hasty shift to online learning has starkly highlighted the deep divide between students who have access to resources (reliable internet connections, food and general support systems) and those who do not. A report from Ryerson University’s Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship and Ryerson Leadership Lab found that 38 per cent of Toronto households do not have internet that meets Canada’s download speed targets; 49 per cent of those who were not connected to the internet said the cost was the main reason for not having it; and more than a third of those worried about paying internet bills were low-income, newcomer, single parent, Latin American, South Asian and Black residents. As school, work and access to critical services have been forced online, those with limited or no internet have faced major consequences.

The COVID-19 pandemic has regrettably revealed that institutional and systemic racism have persisted in post-secondary institutions’ policies and practices. In an open letter to post-secondary institutions, the Ontario Human Rights Commission shared examples of racism, discrimination, xenophobia and increased violence and fear students had experienced within Ontario post-secondary settings during the pandemic, eroding their basic human rights to safe educational spaces. “These experiences are not new, as racism is ingrained in our society and institutions, but have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic,” the Newcomer Students’ Association responded in a statement. “Reliance primarily on virtual platforms for learning and socializing has led to racialized students feeling doubly isolated, marginalized and discriminated against.”

The current situation is troubling as it confirms that Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) policies within post-secondary institutions are failing to address the diverse needs and experiences of racialized students. As we wrote in a recent op-ed: “Without comprehensive race-based data, equity policies within Canadian universities have limited impact in adequately addressing discrimination and racism.”

The challenging circumstances of the pandemic offer an opportunity to reimagine post-secondary institutions to address existing problems with race and ethnic representation, explore solutions for diversity and equity, and critically examine and meet the immediate and long-term needs of marginalized students, staff and faculty through institutional reform.

Systemic change through Inclusive Excellence

Critical and Indigenous scholars have described how Canada’s long and enduring history of colonialism and exclusion has informed all its institutions, and post-secondary institutions are no exception. Students from historically marginalized communities regularly experience exclusion, discrimination and marginalization. This often takes the form of: racism, racially motivated micro-aggressions and “psychological gaslighting,” whereby their experiences are denied, overlooked or undervalued; scarcity of social and academic support; social isolation; and lack of meaningful representation.

The existing disconnect between diversity and educational excellence prevents post-secondary institutions from adequately supporting diverse and differentially prepared students to succeed. More than ever, attention must be paid to marginalized students’ intersecting identities, socio-economic status and access needs, academic engagement and success. Consequently, post-secondary institutions must adopt responsive strategies to meet the needs of racialized students.

Within the Canadian post-secondary context, changing demographics, multiculturalism, increased recruitment and retention of international and racialized students and faculty, and the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission have increased focus on EDI. Moreover, political attention to equity, aligned with new mandates for research funding, have triggered senior administrative leadership within research-intensive universities to articulate goals and demonstrate achievements through EDI action plans. However, achieving genuine equity, diversity and inclusion has been a complex task as there are different ideological approaches to equity — including fairness, inclusion and redistribution of resources.

Instead, best practice has shown that effecting systemic change in post-secondary entails an Inclusive Excellence (IE) framework. IE builds on EDI by mandating educational excellence to be fundamentally and inextricably connected to inclusion efforts in four key ways:

  1. Strict focus on student academic and social development;
  2. Purposeful development and utilization of resources to enhance student learning and achievement potential;
  3. Recognition of the benefits of diversity; and
  4. Holistic engagement of diversity in teaching and learning and all operations.

As Canadian post-secondary leaders look toward post-COVID restructuring, we urge them to develop an IE framework that incorporates five key considerations: environmental factors, such as shifting demographics and political dynamics; organizational culture, to ensure broad institutional support for IE in teachingoperations and the working environment; broader adoption of diversity, from recruitment to learning outcomesexpanding the ways in which educational excellence is measured; and expanding institutional accountability structures, mechanisms and measures to include real consequences for non-compliance.

The key elements of the IE framework are that it is grounded in a comprehensive approach and holistic perspective; and that it uses the principles of excellence to move from gathering insights about gaps and challenges in the higher education ecosystem, to creating an action plan to advance equity, diversity and inclusion. Its emphasis on building institutional strategies for achieving EDI goals makes it well suited to addressing challenges in the post-secondary sector, both from a short-term perspective to deal with COVID-triggered inequities, and from a long-range systems lens to effect policy changes.

For instance, the COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us why race-based data matters in health care; an IE approach would acknowledge that it matters equally in education and start collecting data to monitor whether the institution is actually becoming more equitable and diverse. It could include processes to make transparency and accountability measures actionable and enforceable, with financial consequences built in for defaulters. Certainly, there are potential dangers in relation to data misuse, and safeguards must be put in place to manage these right from the start. However, for substantive and sustainable policy solutions to be implemented, robust data collection processes and systems are needed.

An IE-based change model works through an integrated strategic approach that engages stakeholders at multiple levels within the system. It focuses on engaging diversity in curriculum and in pedagogy to ensure that all learners with differential needs can be served optimally. And it works to eliminate barriers that limit equitable participation for racialized, Indigenous and Black students.

Systemic change in post-secondary institutions is generally difficult due to their complex organizational and governance structure and the discord between their espoused and enacted values. But genuine, transformational change is possible. It will require a sound IE framework with carefully crafted tools that are responsive to complex institutional dynamics and broader societal context. Such an approach will help post-secondary become systemically responsive in meeting the current and future educational needs of racialized students. As anthropologist David Graeber so wisely says: “The ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently.”