When colleges and universities shut their doors earlier this year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, it had a profound and immediate effect on students, staff, instructors and faculty, and the institutions themselves. Now with a new school year set to start in a few short weeks, post-secondary institutions are quickly adapting to new ways of teaching and supporting students both on-campus and remotely, but no one is understating the challenges that remain.

We asked 20 experts from across the post-secondary spectrum: “What issue are you most concerned about when it comes to resuming classes, and how should we deal with it?” Their answers touched on everything from the challenges remote learning poses to students from marginalized groups, to the health and safety of vulnerable staff, to the onerous pressures facing international students.

This is the first of two expert compilations from First Policy Response on the topic of post-secondary education. You can find the second one here.


Rahul Sapra: In-person teaching must only resume when health and safety have been adequately addressed

Duane McNair: Finding creative and safe approaches to hands-on learning

Chirstopher Conway: Career college students face unique challenges

Brenda Austin-Smith: Pandemic has amplified problems with post-secondary funding model

Nicole Brayiannis: Financial barriers of post-secondary education are not new to COVID-19

Julia Pereira: Students need financial certainty and online learning standards

Carlo Handy Charles: International students will suffer most from tuition hikes 

Pierre Cyr: Canada must lower barriers to international students

Mitchell Davidson: Institutions must set reasonable health guidelines, help international students

Julia Colyar and Jackie Pichette: Online learning must be accessible to students with disabilities 

Jen Laliberte: Indigenous students in remote communities need additional supports

Hilary Hagar: Online classes put Northern and rural students at a disadvantage

Erin Knight: Without universal internet access, least advantaged students will fall further behind

Marium Nur Vahed: Universities need to invest in digital communities

Colin Furness: Educators must rethink approaches to help students learn remotely

Philippe LeBel: Remote-learning resources offer valuable tools for educators

Kaleb Zewdineh: Students need support dealing with uncertainty

Kelley Castle: Schools must manage students’ expectations as they face dramatic changes

Dana Stephenson: Preparing students to succeed in post-pandemic labour market

In-person teaching must only resume when health and safety have been adequately addressed

Rahul Sapra – President, Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations

The COVID-19 crisis has magnified the scale of existing challenges at Ontario’s universities and has led to increased hardship, loss and anxiety in the campus community — especially for those already marginalized before the pandemic. Despite decreasing COVID-19 cases in Ontario, there is still no indication that it is safe for students, staff, faculty or academic librarians to return to university campuses—especially in major urban centres. A variety of plans have been developed by institutions, with many focusing on emergency remote-teaching options. However, some universities are rushing the return to in-person teaching by making unilateral decisions that put the health and safety of faculty, staff and students at risk.

A safe, effective and sustainable return to in-person classes is not a process that a university administration can dictate unilaterally. Campuses are dynamic and complex, presenting some of the most challenging conditions for mitigating the risks of viral transmission. Faculty are particularly susceptible, as many fall into age demographics more vulnerable to COVID-19. With the latest research confirming the increased dangers of groups interacting in closed spaces, a return to classrooms, shared hallways and common washrooms is not worth the risk it poses to those in the university community.

How, then, do we effect a return to campus that adequately protects the health and safety of everyone? By ensuring that university administrations take their time, work through — instead of circumventing — bodies that represent campus stakeholders (senates and joint health and safety committees, to name a couple), and meaningfully consult with the campus community to make sure they get things right.


Finding creative and safe approaches to hands-on learning

Duane McNair – Acting President, Algonquin College

Our top concern is maintaining a high-quality learning experience while ensuring the safety of our students and employees.

Algonquin College’s current plan for the fall term minimizes face-to-face instruction and promotes the delivery of remote academic instruction whenever possible. Many programs will be offered remotely and the remaining programs will be a combination of remote learning and select on-campus academic activities.

Physical distancing rules mean fewer students can be accommodated onsite in lab spaces designed for hands-on learning activities. For our summer pilot program and fall term, a safe return to in-person classes means developing a plan that includes guidelines for physical distancing, protocols for cleaning, rules for using personal protective equipment (PPE) where required, and mandatory online safety training for the select students accessing our campuses.

Hands-on training is fundamental to many college programs – so we need to find creative approaches to using and adapting our classroom spaces and to ensure safe handling of equipment. We also need to strategically deploy staff and students to maximize precaution and minimize interaction during all face-to-face learning activities. Our professors, instructors and program chairs have had to reimagine classroom labs, curriculum, safety procedures, examinations and more.

Providing an excellent learner experience is one of the guiding principles of Algonquin’s Academic planning during COVID-19. In those cases where the College felt it was unable to deliver on the learning goals or maintain the quality of a particular program, it made the difficult decision not to offer that program in the spring or fall terms.


Career college students face unique challenges

Christopher Conway – CEO, Career Colleges Ontario

Our first priority as the province moves to resume classes is and always will be the safety and wellbeing of our students and staff. However, the challenges we face in pursuit of this commitment are as unique as our students.
Career colleges are subject to separate legislation and requirements that control their access to financial supports, as well as how their programs are delivered. Career college students are normally ineligible for Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) funding for online programs. The province has temporarily allowed online funding eligibility for OSAP during COVID-19. We believe that should always have been allowed.

As the province urged institutions to transition in-person classes online, career colleges were tasked to quickly build the digital infrastructure necessary to deliver online training on a temporary, emergency basis. Colleges that were unable to make the rapid transition chose to close.

There are approximately 45,000 career college students in more than 80 communities across Ontario. And the demographics of Ontario’s career college students are different than conventional post-secondary students. For example:

  • 57 per cent are over the age of 30
  • 41 per cent are parents, and 1 in 10 are single parents
  • 69 per cent are women
  • Half are new Canadians

We train a diverse group, including: pilots, chefs, personal support workers, pharmacy assistants, lab technicians, dental assistants, paralegals, truck drivers, heavy equipment operators, ESL teachers, payroll administrators, pre-apprenticeship trainees and paramedics.

In supporting this demographic, we regularly reflect on critical factors tied to student success: program length, instructor-to-student ratios, financial mobility, and campus location to name a few.

We are advocating a blended approach to reopening Ontario’s career colleges upon the approval of government and health authorities. The blended delivery model incorporates a combination of online and in-person training to uphold the quality standards and delivery of college programs.

Notably, it would allow for the appropriate financial supports to facilitate student success and a strong, skilled workforce.


Pandemic has amplified problems with post-secondary funding model

Brenda Austin-Smith – President, Canadian Association of University Teachers

How to ensure safe and equitable access for students and staff is top of mind for the fall. The issues are many, from access to technology and reliable internet, to protective equipment and additional personnel to support quality remote instruction or smaller in-person class sizes. It all comes down to needing additional resources for the sector. The pandemic has amplified problems with the funding and employment model for post-secondary education.

The pandemic is a fulcrum. Will we accelerate on the path we are on – increasing our institutions’ reliance on private financing, the exploitation of precarious labour, and the turn toward narrow, market-oriented curriculum and research? Or will we seize the moment to fix the problems and define and advance a renewed vision for high-quality, affordable and accessible public post-secondary education?

We need to look urgently and seriously at replacing a broken system of private financing that condemns young people to a generation of debt, wilfully exploits international students, and leaves universities and colleges vulnerable to the vagaries of the market and far too susceptible to external shocks. We need to fix a broken employment system that has privileged hiring cheap and precarious labour over building the full capacity of the academic profession to better serve the public interest. Finally, we need to reimagine the purpose of post-secondary education beyond that of simply being a service provider and see it instead as essential to the preservation, dissemination and advance of knowledge for the benefit of all, now and in the future.


Financial barriers of post-secondary education are not new to COVID-19

Nicole Brayiannis – National Deputy Chairperson, Canadian Federation of Students

COVID-19 has exacerbated the financial barriers for students in accessing post-secondary education (PSE) that have long existed prior to this pandemic. Currently, thousands of students are worried about being able to return to school in the fall. In addition to skyrocketing tuition fees, as of May the unemployment rate for young people was 29 per cent. The Canadian government has failed to meet the needs of students, as they responded with poorly planned patchwork relief, rather than addressing a broken system, investing in a sustainable PSE system for the future and introducing a universal income support system for all students.

Over the last 30 years, Canada has shifted from a publicly funded model of PSE, to one that is publicly assisted. This divestment from education has had the greatest impact on students of minority communities, as well as directly fuelling the privatization of institutions; international students are used as ATMs, and the autonomy and integrity of graduate-level research is sacrificed. The Canadian Federation of Students unites students in fighting for universal education, through the elimination of financial and accommodational barriers for all students.

In working toward a universal PSE system, the immediate calls to action include:

  1. Reduction of fall tuition through greater shared investment from provincial and federal governments into post-secondary institutions;
  2. Extension of all financial relief initiatives to include international students and students over 30;
  3. Elimination of performance-based funding criteria for post-secondary institutions in accessing public funding;
  4. Financial support for internet access, and creating equitable learning opportunities for students in rural communities who cannot access internet connections; and
  5. Strict and consistent physical-distancing protocols for students and workers returning to campus.


Students need financial certainty and online learning standards

Julia Pereira – President, Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance

Students are concerned with the financial uncertainty that continues despite classes being set to resume in September. Many have experienced barriers to employment during summer months, when they would typically work to save money: approximately 35 per cent of students surveyed by Statistics Canada reported a delay or cancellation of their work placement because of the pandemic. While students have received some support through the Canada Emergency Student Benefit (CESB), this is not meant to cover high tuition costs.

Further, a lack of transparency and predictability around Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) funding prevents students from planning for the fall semester. Through OSAP enhancements, the provincial government can ensure students are able to continue their education. This means increasing non-refundable grants, eliminating expected parental contributions, and publicizing the formula used to calculate need; it also means ensuring that the OSAP calculator and aid estimator are accurate and reliable.

There is also uncertainty around the quality of education as courses move online. In a Canadian Digital Learning Research Association survey, 55 per cent of respondents felt online courses offered less value. Many students have negative perceptions about the quality of online learning, which has prompted a call for institutions to lower tuition. Faculty are also transitioning online rapidly, without necessary support or quality standards to guide course development. Creating standards would both support course redesign and provide students with the assurance they need. OUSA, therefore, looks to the provincial government to consult with eCampus Ontario, Contact North, experts and faculty to develop quality frameworks for online course development.


International students will suffer most from tuition hikes

Carlo Handy Charles – Vanier Scholar, Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation Scholar, and PhD Student in Sociology, McMaster University

Tuition hikes are the most important concerns for international post-secondary students when it comes to resuming classes in September.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak, the federal government and post-secondary institutions have implemented relief measures, such as the Canada Emergency Student Benefit (CESB), remote work and online learning, to allow students to complete their programs on time while facing the arduous socioeconomic impact of the pandemic. However, many international students have not been able to access relief measures because they do not meet eligibility criteria. In addition, they are facing incredible tuition hikes amid the pandemic.

As I co-wrote in a recent article for Policy Options, several Canadian universities are hiking tuition fees for international students who are enrolled for the summer 2020 session and the 2020-21 academic year. While domestic tuition fees in Ontario are frozen for another year, international tuition has increased up to 15 per cent. These tuition hikes have not only exacerbated existing challenges for international students as foreign nationals in Canada, but have also exposed their precarious status.

If policymakers and university administrators do not reconsider these tuition hikes, many international students will be forced to either take on extra jobs in order to survive during their studies in Canada, or drop out of their programs altogether. Such actions will have a significant impact on Canada’s incredible effort to attract international students to fund its universities and fill their programs.

As the pandemic significantly affects international students, reconsidering and/or freezing international tuition for the next year would allow many of them to continue their studies. Like many Canadian families who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic, international students’ families may also be struggling in their home countries to financially support them during their studies in Canada. By reconsidering these tuition hikes, Canadian institutions will show with concrete actions that they care about the wellbeing of international students beyond the billions of dollars these students bring yearly to Canada’s national economy.


Canada must lower barriers to international students

Pierre Cyr – Vice-President of Public Affairs, FleishmanHillard HighRoad

Federal and provincial governments need to work in partnership with the post-secondary sector to ease the travel restrictions in place to permit international students to come to Canada. While accommodations have been made for temporary foreign workers, there has yet to be a clear plan to assist hundreds of thousands of international students.

Some key figures:

  • In the last decade alone, Canada’s international student population has tripled;
  • In 2019, Canada’s international student population increased by 13 per cent;
  • Canada is now the world’s third-leading destination of international students, with a staggering 642,000 foreign students.

We must keep in mind that we are in a global competition for international students. They are not only an important source of revenue for our post-secondary institutions, they are also a key pillar in ensuring we continue to draw the brightest minds from around the globe. International students give Canada a competitive edge in terms of research, entrepreneurship and innovation.

Other countries, like Australia, are proposing the notion of a “secure corridor” to ease some of these difficulties for international students, while ensuring strong public health measures. If they act faster than us in formalizing these measures, Canada risks losing tens of thousands of international students in upcoming semesters.

The immediate and longer-term impacts of continuing to attract international students to Canada are particularly relevant as we consider our approaches to economic recovery.


Institutions must set reasonable health guidelines, help international students

Mitchell Davidson – Executive Director, StrategyCorp Institute of Public Policy and Economy

Our universities and colleges can manage the physical requirements that come with returning to class in a COVID-19 environment. Though changes must be made, especially for a system that has students frequently attend different physical classrooms, the barrier to maintaining social distance is not insurmountable. However, there are two concerns: the willingness of students to follow these guidelines, and the overall loss of international students and the revenue they bring.

The best preventive measures are only effective if there is compliance. The student population has lost out on not just education for the past several months, but the student experience, too. Expecting younger students to give up some of the most enjoyable, formative years of their lives for a virus with declining infection rates is not reasonable. Universities and colleges will need to structure reasonableness into their limitations, including a careful return of student experiences such as intramurals, especially as residences re-open.

More importantly, there is a high level of uncertainty surrounding the future of international students. Before the borders reopen, the federal and provincial governments should look at employment rules, visa statuses and course requirements to create a temporary easing of restrictions to encourage more international students. Post-secondary institutions have, rightly or wrongly, built themselves on the inflated revenue brought by international students. The pandemic should encourage these institutions — especially those in more remote communities — to diversify their income streams, but in the meantime going from reliance on international tuition to none whatsoever is not feasible or practical.


Online learning must be accessible to students with disabilities

Julia Colyar – Vice President, Research and Policy
Jackie Pichette – Director, Policy, Research & Partnerships, Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario

The abrupt move to online and remote course delivery at Ontario colleges and universities in March brought accessibility issues to the foreground. At HEQCO, we’ve been particularly interested in how this transition has affected accessibility, particularly for students with disabilities.

Research indicates that students with disabilities are less likely to persist to graduation, and those who do persist take longer to finish their degrees. In the current environment, these trends could be exacerbated. A HEQCO study conducted this spring clearly indicates that the COVID-19-induced shift to online courses has presented difficulties for students. Students with disabilities were more likely to report experiencing challenges once courses moved online, in contrast to their previous experiences with in-person and online courses, as well as in contrast to students without disabilities.

HEQCO’s study also focuses on how faculty and staff members developing online courses for the fall term can help address some of the challenges identified by students. For example, faculty can communicate course requirements and organization upfront so that students are empowered to make choices that fit their needs. Another suggestion is to embrace Universal Design for Learning principles across disciplines in order to support student motivation and ensure challenging, engaging learning opportunities for all students. Faculty can also encourage all students to practise skills that can help them be successful regardless of the learning environment — time management, organization, digital literacy and self-efficacy. We look forward to publishing more detailed findings from the study in early fall.

As the start of the new academic year comes into view, ensuring access and success for students with disabilities should be a priority and an ongoing commitment. We hope the lessons learned over the past several months help support success for all students in the post-pandemic future.


Indigenous students in remote communities need additional supports

Jen Laliberte – eleV Coordinator, First Nations Initiatives, Yukon University

While the shift to a virtual model of education eases some concerns related to potential transmission of COVID-19, it also creates new challenges. One of the largest issues is student/learner support in a virtual capacity. Yukon University encompasses a network of 13 campuses across the territory, and many of these campuses are in very small, sometimes remote communities with limited access to technology. Yukon communities are all situated in the homelands of Indigenous nations, and Yukon University connects directly with Yukon First Nations to establish priorities and processes to best support Indigenous learners. Connectivity, safe learning spaces and access to devices that meet the needs of courses and programs are issues that arise with the virtual model, and these impact Indigenous students and communities profoundly.

Indigenous learners can encounter additional barriers related to funding, housing, cultural access, language and family responsibilities. Supporting students is a broad and holistic concept, and when learning becomes virtual, the support must, too. Assistance to learners in accessing technology, devices and internet would be a valuable initial step in making support possible. Financial assistance programs, device loan programs and increased awareness about the disparity of student resources would all help to ease this pressure. Cultural supports such as mentors and Elders can provide a valuable connection point for Indigenous students, particularly those living away from their home communities.

As an institution, YukonU has redirected resources toward student supports, including creating a new diverse and flexible helpline/online platform called Connect2YukonU. Through Connect2YukonU, students can get information about everything from academic advising, funding and technology to counselling sessions and virtual Elders-on-Campus. These pivots in programming were designed to ensure support is accessible to all learners. Acknowledging the significance of the entire student experience and the importance of wellness, support and access can help students navigate and succeed regardless of the learning platform.


Online classes put Northern and rural students at a disadvantage

Hilary Hagar – Policy analyst, Northern Policy Institute

It is becoming increasingly likely that most post-secondary courses will be online this fall.

However, this does not inclusively engage all Northern Ontarians. Nearly 121,000 dwellings in Northern Ontario have bandwidth speeds below the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission’s target downloading and uploading speeds (50/10 mbps). And almost 38,000 of those dwellings only have access to a fixed internet connection, which isn’t stable and can be weakened by weather conditions and physical obstructions.

Rural areas of Ontario’s northern regions are disproportionately affected by the lack of digital infrastructure. As an example, downloading basic documents from an email at Lac La Croix First Nation can take an hour. How, then, are rural students in Ontario’s north supposed to easily access and participate in online classes this fall?

The federal government promised up to $6 million to ensure all Canadians have access to internet of an adequate speed by 2030, but it is unlikely that developments on this will be made in time to help online learners this fall.

In the meantime, post-secondary institutions themselves should survey how many students are living in rural areas without quality internet access and what their course enrolments are. To allow rural students to actively participate, post-secondary institutions could require their instructors to pre-record online lectures, allow lengthy time windows to submit assignments, and not place high emphasis on Zoom class participation. Concessions like these need to be made for rural students to fully participate in online higher education.


Without universal internet access, least advantaged students will fall further behind

Erin Knight – Digital Rights Campaigner, OpenMedia

Access to affordable, high-quality home internet for post-secondary students is the top barrier to a successful return to post-secondary classes this fall semester. Online course delivery will be heavily utilized by post-secondary institutions. But that entire system relies on the assumption that all students have sufficient home internet connectivity. Which, sadly, just isn’t true. One in 10 Canadian households does not have any home internet connection. And countless more rely on grossly insufficient connectivity that leaves them unable to participate in the video calls, streaming and downloads needed to support a full digital course load.

With limited or no access to campus facilities (e.g. libraries), post-secondary students without affordable access to quality broadband are falling behind their peers each day. The least connected — low-income, rural/remote, Indigenous students — are already among those most likely to be experiencing other educational disadvantages. But the digital divide is expediting these problems at an alarming rate. This means a failure to access affordable, quality home internet for all students will only further exacerbate existing inequity in post-secondary education when classes resume.

To ensure all students are able to participate fully and equitably in online post-secondary education, we need universal connectivity. The federal government actually promised this goal back in March 2019. But to date, there’s been no actual action. Press releases and promises are useless to a student who can no longer attend school – they need results.

It’s clear to see the future of education is online. For many, it presents an incredible opportunity and provides a safe learning environment during the pandemic. But until the groundwork of universal connectivity is reality, online learning provides yet one more barrier to equitable access to post-secondary education in Canada.


Universities need to invest in digital communities

Marium Nur Vahed – Member of Governing Council, University of Toronto

The undergraduate university experience facilitates the growth of a student’s network, knowledge and identity. University life during a pandemic feels contradictory: how can students realize an expansive university experience when community health and safety depend on the reduction of social circles?

Many universities have communicated plans for an online or mixed delivery of courses for the 2020-21 academic year. However, less attention has been paid to replicating the vitality of campus life online.

The loss of in-person community may manifest in worsening mental health for students. A 2017 report based on the National College Health Assessment found that 67 per cent of students at the University of Toronto felt “very lonely.” For the foreseeable future, students are likely to lose in-person peer-to-peer interaction, university events and access to communal study spaces. Under these conditions, students may experience a growing sense of isolation.

To address this, the next step should be to construct digital communities to support students as they navigate online coursework. There are many meaningful steps that universities can take:

  • Facilitating peer-to-peer connections, including between international and domestic students
  • Investing in student clubs, to ensure the continuity of digital events and socials
  • Expanding mentorship programs
  • Creating digital study groups
  • Creating classroom opportunities for collaboration and group work
  • Developing digital networking and job-shadowing opportunities
  • Hosting webinars with digital breakout sessions

Community is significant to students’ wellbeing and learning experience. The creation of a digital student community is a vital consideration as universities transition to online learning.


Educators must rethink approaches to help students learn remotely

Colin Furness – Assistant Professor, Dalla Lana School of Public Health

Online teaching is easy enough, but online learning is elusive. For most people in most contexts, learning is a social process; being online – even in a Zoom meeting with a screen full of faces – is a very asocial milieu. It is isolating, artificial, and intellectually sterile. In the olden days, correspondence courses had very poor completion rates, for exactly those reasons. Today’s version of the correspondence course – Coursera, which is free and has very high-quality learning materials – has the same poor completion rates. Our universities don’t have the ability to transcend this problem when teaching remotely, unfortunately.

There are two ways to mitigate this. The first, which involves resuming in-person classes, is to rethink large, crowded classrooms in old buildings with poor ventilation. But to do that we’d need to reimagine and rebuild our campuses, and that won’t happen overnight.

The second is to look carefully and critically at how we are spending our classroom time, and what students are being asked to do. Media Synchronicity Theory provides a very useful lens for this, with a very simple premise: we can separate two processes, conveyance and convergence. Conveyance is the simple transfer of information, and we see that with assigned readings as well as lecture-style delivery, where the person at the front of the room talks and the audience listens. It is one-way, and it’s foundational for learning (you can’t learn if there is no content). But it’s not the same as learning. Learning happens when conveyance is followed by convergence. Convergence is where meaning-making happens, where misconceptions are straightened out, where analogies are formed, where exceptions are identified, where usefulness and limitations are tested. And all of this requires conversation.

My own approach to going remote this fall is to have readings as usual, plus “watchings” – segments of my lectures put online where students watch my slides while listening to my voice. Then instead of a single three-hour class, I will divide the class into thirds and hold a one-hour class for each – creating smaller groups to discuss the material. A small group where the whole time is spent in discussion is the best way I can think of to promote convergence in a medium so poorly suited to it.


Educators can draw on remote-learning resources

Philippe LeBel – Policy and Research Analyst, Canadian Alliance of Students Associations

The COVID-19 pandemic forced the post-secondary education (PSE) community to go online last winter with little to no preparation. This resulted in many students experiencing low-quality remote teaching. The impact could be felt in a survey of PSE students from across the country. About two-thirds of the 1,000 respondents to a recent survey commissioned by CASA do not think they will get the same quality education in a remote environment as they would in person.

Teaching personnel can’t be blamed for the past winter semester — in the best-case scenario, they only had two weeks to prepare for a complete paradigm change in their education environment. But thankfully, they have now had four months to prepare for the fall semester and many tools have been made available. Among those, BCCampus and eCampus Ontario offer many opportunities for exchange with educators experienced in remote teaching and provide a lot of online material. One of the most interesting tools they created is their open educational resources (OER) library. OERs often take the form of government-funded, free, accessible and adaptable textbooks. Combined with best-practice sharing, they can be a great way to build a fall semester class that would be accessible to everyone in these harsh times.


Students need support dealing with uncertainty

Kaleb Zewdineh – Class of 2020 Graduate, Ryerson University

COVID-19 raised fundamental problems with students’ academic experience. During the shutdown, universities had numerous challenges in offering appropriate responses to student concerns, keeping students in a state of uncertainty.

The problem is especially urgent for low-income students. Many of them were already relying on assistance programs and support services before the pandemic, including loans for laptops and textbooks, Wi-Fi, meal plans and private tutoring. To many of these students, including myself, the greatest problem related to resuming classes will be how to adapt to the new, post-COVID-19 learning models without a clear understanding how to access those supports. If these supports are delivered online, what happens to students without stable network access?

Related to this, post-secondary institutions urgently need to revamp their mental health services for students, particularly for low-income students, as they deal with these uncertainties.


Schools must manage students’ expectations as they face dramatic changes

Kelley Castle – Dean of Students, Victoria University, University of Toronto

Universities are now operationalizing public health guidelines, but they also need to focus on deliverables and communications around three aspects of student life:

Student experience: Despite new interactive curricula, Zoom programming, and inventive counselling and advising, the student experience this year will be very hard hit. For those living and learning remotely, there will be an obvious loss of community, and a pedagogical and academic loss. For those on campus, there will be social distancing, masks, few common spaces, dining restrictions and constricted classroom discussion – not the ideal convivial, developmentally supportive, inter-disciplinary life. Different anxiety levels and compliance habits around COVID-19 will also have a palpable effect in classrooms and residences.

Student supports: Universities have moved the needle in providing holistic support services, weaving together mental health, accessibility, career education, equity and other learning supports. We will face both increased demands for care and a diminished ability to meet those needs. Many students will be remote learners. This will be a large hurdle for providing personal counselling, advising, referrals and assessments – especially for students who are abroad. This will be exacerbated for students for whom home is sadly less supportive and for students with physical and mental health issues taxed by COVID life.

Student safety: We are focused so much on university compliance with public health guidelines that we are not sufficiently attending to the problem of student compliance. At least two unsettling scenarios are possible: i) Students will strictly follow the university’s public health guidelines, in which case, student experience will be constrained; or ii) Students will not follow guidelines and rules, in which case we will have a system that is less safe. This isn’t a punitive or policing issue – students may just be unable to comply. This seems plausible, given what we have seen in other congregate living facilities and group socializing settings, both of which apply to university residences.

Despite all of this, I do not think it will be a bad experience. In fact, it may in many ways be a valuable one. But it will be different, and communications and expectations need to reflect this.


Preparing students to succeed in post-pandemic labour market

Dana Stephenson – CEO and co-founder, Riipen

The health and safety of students is the number one priority when it comes to resuming classes. Beyond this, I am most concerned about how we continue to prepare students to succeed in a post-pandemic labour force. Over the past few months, we saw the cancellation of thousands of student placements and internships. Young people were among the most affected by changes in the Canadian labour market. According to Statistics Canada, the youth unemployment rate rose to 29.4 per cent in May, up from 16.8 per cent in March. Young people who have kept their jobs since the onset of COVID-19 have experienced steep reductions in their working hours. Underemployment is a very serious issue for post-secondary education. From research done by Burning Glass and Strada, we know that many students who graduate into underemployment will continue to be underemployed for up to 10 years after graduation. If we don’t manage this well, the shortage of opportunities for young people today will impact this cohort of students for years to come. To deal with this, post-secondary education needs to stay closely connected with post-pandemic recovery. Schools need to work with off-campus stakeholders to align education and employment opportunities.

Post-secondary institutions do more than just educate our students — they are also key providers of talent for the workforce. We have just seen a giant shift in how “talent” will be defined moving forward. In my opinion, COVID-19 served as a catalyst for many of the “Future of Work” trends we were already seeing pre-pandemic. In the recovery period, we will see an increased emphasis on competencies such as digital skills, critical thinking, adaptability and other human skills. It is our job to ensure that students have the skills and practical experience that will truly help them stand out during these challenging times.