Canadian colleges and universities are still coping with the fallout of COVID-19, which forced them to adapt mid-semester to online learning models and rapidly develop new plans for the school year that starts next month. We asked a variety of experts — including administrators, advocates, faculty and policy specialists — to look ahead to how the changes to the sector will play out over a longer timeline. We sent them all the same question: “How will post-secondary education be different two years from now as a result of COVID-19?” Thirteen of their answers are below. 

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


Paul Davidson: Top issues for universities include upskilling, equity and international students

André Côté: Higher education sector must respond to changing business model and student needs

Mitchell Davidson: More mid-career students will need skills training and credentials

Dana Stephenson: Post-pandemic labour market will require on-demand learning and soft-skills training

Duane McNair: Colleges can use pandemic experience to become more flexible

Gladys Okine-Ahovi: COVID-19 has shown that post-secondary institutions need to reach more vulnerable youth

Jen Laliberte: Remote learning might help remote Indigenous communities — but they need support first

Philippe LeBel: Governments should step up to improve access to online education

Colin Furness: Classrooms and residences need contagion-resistant redesigns

Philip Oreopoulos: Advantages of on-campus education may be limited to those who can afford it 

Julia Pereira: It’s time to rethink work-integrated education for a remote-learning world

Hilary Hagar: Students need new alternatives to develop marketable skills 

Helen Tewolde: New approaches to education must focus on student well-being

Top issues for universities include upskilling, equity and international students

Paul Davidson – President, Universities Canada

Two years from now, we can expect to see more robust and more sophisticated use of online education. This will be coupled with a recognition of the increased value of face-to-face instruction and campus life.

Universities will also draw on the lessons of moving online to be able to increase offerings in the upskilling and reskilling space to meet the needs of those displaced by the pandemic.

There will be continued attention to equity, diversity and inclusion to help universities “build back better,” including attention to those students most seriously impacted by COVID-19. While “we are all in this together,” the impacts of the pandemic have illustrated long-standing inequities.  

There is a potential for international students to become even more important to Canada’s higher education ecosystem, drawing on how Canada distinguished itself from competitor countries. We anticipate a period to recover existing markets and also continue to diversify source countries.

There is also a recognition that the fiscal capacity of provinces will be significantly constrained, and that there is a risk post-secondary education will once again be pitted against other priorities such as childcare, health care and long-term care.


Higher education sector must respond to changing business model and student needs

André Côté – Public affairs consultant, former advisor to the Ontario minister for higher education and employment services

Higher ed institutions were already facing headwinds before the COVID-19 crisis: Limited growth in domestic enrolments. Flat, falling and, in some cases, increasingly performance-based provincial operating grants. Students and employers questioning job readiness at graduation. Now, the crisis is catalyzing more existential challenges to the pre-COVID “business model” — massively disrupting the experience for two million students, closing borders on international students, and requiring large-scale operational restructuring. How institutions (and governments) address these challenges will impact how post-secondary education looks in 24 months.

Still, as important public trusts, there’s a bigger test for PSE institutions: how they adapt to the urgent needs of Canadian learners and workers sideswiped by this crisis. The scale of disruption in the Canadian economy and job market is unprecedented. The job losses and hardship have been heavily concentrated: among low-wage and precarious workers, women, students and younger workers, immigrants, and hard-hit sectors like retail, hospitality and tourism. The damage to certain industries will take years to recover, if ever. Many of the jobs will never come back; many others will be profoundly changed.

Equipping these Canadians with the knowledge, skills and capabilities for re-employment will be an essential factor in the recovery — for households, for the economy and for the country. Rapidly deploying the education, (re-)training and upskilling opportunities calibrated to the demand in this new labour market will require innovation, adaptation and partnership in PSE and workforce systems — and with employers and policy-makers. It will need to happen at extraordinary speed and scale. 

In a recent piece for FPR, myself and a number of co-authors from across the country took a first stab at a recovery agenda for policy-makers and post-secondary leaders. We make no claim that ours is the definitive list of needed interventions or solutions. I do believe, however, that it signals a level of urgency and boldness that we haven’t yet seen from PSE in meeting this generational moment. Let’s up our game.


More mid-career students will need skills training and credentials

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

The COVID-19 pandemic will serve as a wakeup call to post-secondary institutions by accelerating trends that were already slowly developing, primarily the need to tailor post-secondary education to the employment market. First, post-secondary institutions will likely see an influx of mid-career workers returning, particularly at the college level. This will force the adoption of programs that speak to employers’ needs while understanding students’ time and monetary limitations. Mid-career students have mortgages, bills to pay and families to feed. Therefore, they need quicker programming without the electives and filler that other younger students may desire. A move to micro-credential programming is both needed and necessary.

Eighteen percent of college students already have university degrees, meaning that students are voting with their feet in order to secure skills for employment. Universities would do well to recognize this trend and accelerate their plans to become employment- and skill-centric. That means further distancing themselves from restrictive faculty practices like tenure and developing new courses and fields outside of the social studies. The efficacy of a university degree fades when there are more applicants for fewer jobs (ie. in a recession) and differentiating skills will become more important than ever. Post-secondary institutions will need to recognize employers need both hard and soft skills and adapt their programming accordingly.


Post-pandemic labour market will require on-demand learning and soft-skills training

Dana Stephenson – CEO and co-founder, Riipen

I think post-secondary education will expand its offerings beyond what we see today. Continuing Education was already one of the fastest-growing demographics for post-secondary schools. As a result of COVID-19 and its impact on unemployment rates, many people will be looking to make career changes and develop skills that are more aligned with the workplaces we have today. In a challenging labour market, people will be looking for ways to become more competitive, and furthering their education has always been a great pathway for this. I believe post-secondary schools have a massive opportunity in the mid-career reskilling and upskilling space but these learners require a different type of flexibility. As the sector adapts, I think we will see more modular and on-demand learning that enables students to access the skills they need when they need them. We will also see an increase in micro-credentialling, giving people the ability to stack their educational qualifications based on their unique backgrounds and future plans. 

We will see students of all ages start to demand more career readiness skills and human skills training from post-secondary institutions. COVID-19 changed the way employers value skills like adaptability, problem-solving, teamwork and communication. We were already seeing a shift in post-secondary education to providing more of this type of training, and I think post-pandemic, this will become more important than ever. 

Lastly, I think we will see a growing demand for online education. Although many learners have found that online classes take away from the on-campus experience, others have seen that it gives them the flexibility to study from anywhere and at any time. This pandemic forced all of us to become more comfortable interacting in a virtual world, and with improvements to remote learning, I believe that many students will prefer this option in the future.


Colleges can use pandemic experience to become more flexible

Duane McNair – Acting President, Algonquin College

COVID-19 has already caused a transformative shift in post-secondary education. Remote learning has altered the relationships students and employees have with their institution. Colleges and universities were pushed into transformative change – almost overnight – once campuses were closed in March and their winter terms moved entirely online. We were challenged to try new things in order to best meet the needs of our learners and employees remotely.

At Algonquin College, we rapidly adapted our programs, courses, instructional approaches, academic-support strategies and supports in order to deliver a high-quality remote experience. This meant experimenting, discovering new approaches, and establishing new best practices that could stay with us short-, medium- and long-term. This entire process accelerated Algonquin College’s work to enhance and personalize our learners’ college experience and give our students maximum flexibility – be that in a physical or a digital space.

For example, we had to come up with unique ways to deliver the majority of our student support services, campus services and events virtually. Even when things become somewhat normalized again, and the majority of the College community returns to campus, many of the lessons learned during the pandemic will potentially allow for more flexible delivery of some college experiences and services.

Looking to the future, Algonquin College will continue to create an environment that responds to individual learners — meeting them when, where and how they wish to achieve their educational goals.

Personalization, flexibility and innovation will remain foundational to our goals – both inside and outside the classroom – as we adapt to new realities post-COVID-19. The pandemic has proven that institutions have the ability to quickly make wide-scale and far-reaching changes. Those are truly valuable lessons; they could allow for the next two years to be a dynamic period of experimentation, reinvention and creativity in the field of post-secondary education.


COVID-19 has shown that post-secondary institutions need to reach more vulnerable youth

Gladys Okine-Ahovi – Executive Lead, Canadian Council for Youth Prosperity

Academia is not typically known to be nimble, but COVID-19 has pushed post-secondary education far beyond its comfort zone of bricks and mortar and opened a door to tremendous opportunities for allyship and championship for stronger and more resilient communities across Canada.

The pandemic has exacerbated inequities and inefficiencies that have long challenged Canada’s post-secondary system to be one that leaves no one behind. Institutions will be held to account to ensure learning is accessible, affordable and provided in culturally safe and respectful environments.

Offerings will be dynamic and competitive on a global scale, as the pandemic has thrust learners into a space where they can access education from around the world through their phones and tablets. It must have creativity, collaboration and adaptability as its guiding principles. These soft and evergreen skills are vital for students, formally (in curriculum, regardless of field) and informally (through the student experience). 

Post-secondary institutions will be a lifeline for young people, extending their reach into more remote/rural communities to reach those who are further away from traditional learning and training environments. COVID has shown us how quickly and easily large segments of our population can be separated from the workforce. Two years from now, they should have established pathways to bring vulnerable youth into the fold so that they, too, can gain the soft skills that enable them to pivot in an ever-changing world of work skills that help level the playing field. Fast change is possible. COVID has opened the door.


Remote learning might help remote Indigenous communities — but they need support first

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

The shift to the virtual realm prompted by COVID-19 doesn’t have a defined end date. There is no certainty in planning for a future beyond COVID-19, as we are still in the early stages of this pandemic, and timelines for vaccines and herd immunity are unknown. This could mean the “new normal” of online meetings, classes and lecture continues well past this semester, and perhaps even well beyond two years. 

As institutions, post-secondary and otherwise, move to adapt and innovate programs and services, new investments in technology and infrastructure will also shape the path moving forward. Online delivery means students in rural or remote locations can potentially access the same programs and services as their counterparts in urban centres, as long as the technology to support them is available. This could have profound impacts on smaller Indigenous communities being able to retain more young people, and help students pursue their educational goals without leaving their families, communities and cultural connections. 

But there are barriers to online learning as well, so while this is a moment of opportunity, it is not without challenges in implementation and delivery. Ideally, in two years, there will be more broad acceptance of the necessity for internet and technology access for all students, and government and institutional support to make that happen. 

The abrupt impact of COVID has demonstrated that it is possible for institutions to show incredible flexibility and innovation. This provides a path for the future, where options are diverse and students can be supported to learn in ways that work best for their communities, nations, families and selves. New partnerships can also be forged to work collaboratively toward common vision and goals. In Yukon, self-governing First Nations are directing education in innovative ways, creating opportunities for post-secondary connections and possibilities. Though we may not know what learning models and platforms will be available two years from now, we can be dedicated to continued adaptation and responsiveness. Post-secondary institutions should always be learning, too.


Governments should step up to improve access to online education

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

The main change COVID-19 will have on the post-secondary education community will be that most people who had not tried remote teaching before will now have experienced online learning. Hopefully, if everyone is able to properly prepare for the upcoming fall semester, it will be a good experience for most people. 

We see a similar phenomenon happening in the workforce. Recent studies have revealed that many companies are planning to have more full-time remote employees, even after the end of the crisis. And employers, like employees, seem to find advantages to working remotely. 

In the PSE community, we will surely see a similar tendency for remote learning. For different reasons, students, educators and administrators may enjoy this new way of teaching. It will be important for policy-makers to take this into consideration. Many tools can be provided by all governments to improve access to PSE. From grants to accessible educational material, not to mention universal high-speed internet access, the PSE policy-makers of today will have to get the country ready for tomorrow.


Classrooms and residences need contagion-resistant redesigns

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

I’m hoping that in two years, school will look nearly the same as it did before COVID-19. Everything we are discovering about online learning tells us that it is not great. Because I have studied the intersection of people and technology, I already knew that, but it has not been a widely held view – even at the venerable Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, there has been a remarkable (and dismaying) embrace of technology in learning because it is assumed to represent an improvement.  

It is my belief (or at least my hope) that the discourse around the benefits of remote learning will change to recognize that learning is a social process, and it’s social in a way that can’t be replicated adequately on a computer screen. Physical campuses with physical classrooms and labs and social interaction form the best environment for learning. Universities already know how to do that reasonably well.

I think (or at least hope) that we will see a shift in how we design new buildings, classrooms and workspaces to be resilient to contagion – smaller crowds and better ventilation. Residences also form a significant piece of post-secondary education for many students, and they need to be rethought, too – private bathrooms, separate entrances and the ability to modulate from large dining halls when needed. This kind of redesign will only happen in the long run, but I’m hopeful that what we have experienced will embed a new wisdom among architects and institutions about what constitutes smart design, with a new emphasis on resilience and small gatherings, instead of reliance on technology and large classes.


Advantages of on-campus education may be limited to those who can afford it  

Philip Oreopoulos – Professor of Economics and Public Policy, University of Toronto

Online learning offers potential advantages. For example, I can record videos of lectures that, with the help of a pause button, come across to the student as fluid and to the point. Students can watch these videos and we can spend our classroom time focused on active dialogue, answering questions and working through problems. We save in commute time, and the chat box seems to generate more active participation than a large class. 

Technology for facilitating online is booming, and the pandemic has produced an active discussion about how best to learn in a virtual environment. After iterating and with discussion and research, we are bound to become very good at providing high-quality lectures and smoothly run virtual classrooms. 

And yet, there is something about online learning that seems to drain student motivation and interest in a way that in-person education does not. Most students prefer to have a routine to their learning that includes face-to-face interactions with instructors and classmates. Two experimental studies both revealed that students taking a class online did significantly worse on the final exam than students taking the same class in person. Attendance and participation rates were appreciatively higher in the face-to-face case. Students seem to find it difficult to motivate themselves without social interaction. 

Online learning is on order of magnitudes cheaper to provide than face-to-face. Finding ways to motivate students to focus and self-learn while using online learning could provide better instruction and facilitate greater learning. I worry, however, that a two-tier system could arise from the pandemic: those who can afford it will prefer on-campus and in-person learning because of the education and learning experiences gained from outside the classroom, but also for its consumption value. Those who cannot may end up pursuing a second system of high-quality online learning that offers higher education at a vastly lower cost. If employers come to value these programs, then perhaps this second tier will still generate high returns and create greater access. But it may also increase inequality.


It’s time to rethink work-integrated education for a remote-learning world

Julia Pereira – President, Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance

We anticipate that within two years, online learning will be more prevalent than it was prior to COVID-19. This has the potential to be a positive shift that enhances the accessibility and affordability of post-secondary education across the province, creating more opportunities to diversify learning and prepare students for a shift to an increasingly online workforce. However, the benefits of increased online learning cannot be realized without a strong foundation to support quality of and access to online learning. By creating this foundation, we can ensure that post-secondary institutions can offer affordable, accessible, high-quality online learning two years from now. This will require quality assurance standards and review mechanisms to guide the expansion of online learning. To improve access, we also need to expand and strengthen internet and broadband connectivity, particularly for students in rural and remote communities. 

Furthermore, this pandemic has forced employers and institutions to rethink work-integrated learning opportunities such as co-op placements or practicums. Throughout COVID-19, these opportunities have been offered through alternative delivery methods that still provided students with an opportunity to engage in meaningful work. These solutions have supported innovative and enhanced ways of learning, and moving forward, they can ensure that students in remote or rural areas are still able to pursue work-integrated learning. To support these opportunities, the provincial government should re-invest $68 million in the Career Ready Fund over three years to incentivize employers to create more job opportunities for students and recent graduates.


Students need new alternatives to develop marketable skills 

Hilary Hagar – Policy analyst, Northern Policy Institute

Due to COVID-19, higher education is likely to continue online in the coming years. While this allows learners to complete their studies remotely, some of the benefits students get from post-secondary learning will be lost.  

For most new graduates to get work in their fields, they need more than just their degree or diploma. The soft skills graduates learn from study abroad experiences, experiential learning and leadership in extracurriculars, for example, all go a long way in job competition.

The heightened hurdles for students to gain work experience this summer and the lack of opportunities to develop soft skills in post-secondary settings could mean new graduates will have fewer marketable skills, and will suffer in the labour market.

Of course, there was a federal plan to address summer experience for students. While the Canada Student Service Grant (CSSG) has become associated with controversy, it’s students that are disadvantaged. As we enter the last month of summer break, there does not appear to be a solution.

Post-secondary leaders should consider ways to engage students beyond Zoom classes. Supporting students’ remote co-ops and offering remote work-integrated learning opportunities are potential options. Perhaps non-profits that could have benefitted from CSSG volunteers could partner with education institutions so students can receive course credits to volunteer during the semester. The federal funds allocated to the CSSG could be directed to post-secondary institutions to help facilitate these opportunities and pay students for their contributions. Not only will this make institutions more competitive, students will benefit post-graduation.


New approaches to education must focus on student well-being 

Helen Tewolde – Director of Policy and Programs, The Law Foundation of Ontario

It was abundantly clear even before the pandemic that the workforce — and the education, skill development and training that learners require for it was rapidly changing. The pandemic has simply necessitated a faster response to this reality.

In two years, public policy related to post-secondary education will have likely advanced to responding more directly, and with greater coordination, to the role of post-secondary education in a world of increasingly precarious and unpredictable work. Post-secondary actors will thus have to define a high-quality education and training experience through the lens of overall well-being. It is no longer about tracking numbers, like how many complete a course or graduate, but about the significance of such milestones on the life chances of all learners.

Government and post-secondary institutions will have developed and adapted to newly emerging performance indicators related to: student learning and experience; skill development, particularly digital skills (and this is for everyone administrators, students and faculty alike); the use of instructional design tools and techniques to create easy-to-navigate online formats; and the availability and applicability of resources such as disability and mental health supports, as well as more mainstream services for faculty and students.

Quality through well-being will be defined by the extent to which faculty, with the support of administrators, are able to convey the significance of whatever is being taught and learned: connecting it in a relevant way to personal life-skill development and to work opportunities that sustain livelihoods. This does not mean a loss of learning in the humanities and social science, just that creativity is the name of the game. Leveraging the skills and experiences of students themselves, who are mostly “digital natives” and have a fresh and unique vantage point, will support in the development of new approaches. 

Significant regional, socioeconomic and individual-level differences in digital access and opportunity will only be exacerbated post-pandemic. New approaches for post-secondary systems to sensitively respond to these variations will hopefully be shared across the system to ensure an optimized quality experience and well-being for all.