How universities sprang into action in a COVID-19 world

Some Ontario universities managed to do in one weekend what might otherwise have taken a decade to accomplish — going almost entirely virtual
By Steve Paikin - Published on Oct 22, 2020
In response to COVID-19, the University of Toronto shifted 6,300 courses online. (iStock/mdmworks)

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The University of Toronto’s president, Meric Gertler, will never forget March 17, 2020.

That was the day the province declared a state of emergency to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. Suddenly, Gertler was responsible for figuring out how to educate 60,000 students without allowing any of them on to the university’s three campuses (downtown Toronto, Mississauga, and Scarborough).

“We took 6,300 courses and shifted them online,” Gertler said. “We encouraged our residential students to leave. And we helped 700 students studying abroad to come home. And we did it all over one weekend.”

Gertler was one of three university presidents who participated in a recent Zoom conference, organized by Toronto’s York Club, focused on how their post-secondary institutions are adjusting to life in a pandemic.

The largest university in the country by student population, U of T has an annual operating budget of more than $2.7 billion. That’s bigger than Prince Edward Island’s or each of Canada’s three territories and as much as the cities of Vancouver and Winnipeg combined. Moving quickly and nimbly is not what universities are necessarily known for. And, yet, it was essential in a pandemic era.

Ever since March, universities all over the province have been trying to figure out how to bring sweeping changes to their sector. And, to be sure, while some students have legitimate complaints about aspects of their academic experiences, the reality is that universities have had a Herculean task adjusting to the new normal. (They’d also point out that the degrees the students will graduate with will be just as legitimate as pre-COVID degrees.)

For example, at U of T, 8,000 students normally live on campus. Now, somewhere between 2,000 to 3,000 students are spread out in residences and doing take-out meals only. U of T also took in their returning international students, plus 1,000 more under quarantine, and put them up in local hotels; remarkably, they’ve seen no COVID-19 outbreaks.

Fully 90 per cent of students now take all their classes online, with just 10 per cent doing one course (such as a lab) in class.

“But even then,” Gertler says, “we practise physical distancing in class, mask wearing is mandatory, and we’ve upgraded the air-filtration systems.”

At York University, president Rhonda Lenton was already neck deep in trying to figure out what impact automation and artificial intelligence would have on her more than 46,000 full- and part-time students. She notes that two-thirds of emerging jobs will require some kind of post-secondary education, while half of all existing jobs will be affected by automation and AI.

Then the coronavirus hit, giving her institution a whole new set of problems to navigate.

“We have a responsibility to generate the knowledge to make communities more resilient,” Lenton said. “And, now, COVID-19 has intensified the disruptions that were already happening.”

No one has to tell Lenton about the importance of a university education. Neither of her parents went to university, and yet she ended up president of the third-largest university in Canada. “So I’ve always appreciated from an early age how important university is for social mobility,” she said.

One of the first things York focused on was the so-called digital divide. If students could no longer come to campus, that meant too many would be learning at home with inferior broadband or worse.

“Some of our students didn’t even have laptops,” Lenton said. “We had to buy 1,500 laptop computers for them.”

This was an issue for U of T as well. “There’s a very variable access to highspeed internet,” Gertler confirmed. “Not everyone has a safe space to work from home. And vulnerable students with disabilities may have additional problems. In fact, the libraries were the last things we closed down, because they provided good internet service and a space to work.”

For York, next came deepening partnerships with private-sector players to enhance student skills development. For example, the university deepened its arrangement with Shopify so that some students could do half their studies in a virtual York classroom and half with the company.

There was also the obligation to keep the university’s labs open and operating for scientists, given the work they’re doing in the search for a COVID-19 vaccine.

“The faculty and staff have really rallied,” Lenton said. “We’ve all had to align with new priorities. It’s an unprecedented challenge.”

For Franco Vaccarino, who stepped down just two months ago as president of the University of Guelph, the priority was ensuring the strong mental health of that institution’s 28,000 students.

“The pathway to mental-health challenges is unlike any before,” Vaccarino said. “And the duration makes it different. Most triggers are normally clearly defined and short. This isn’t. It’s chronic versus acute.”

Vaccarino sees many people trying to embrace what he calls “the upside of uncertainty.”

“But it’s not the case for many,” he said. “Many students have elevated levels of anxiety and depression. We need to keep a strong eye on that.”

Guelph also sees itself as having a special research mission during this pandemic. Its Ontario Veterinary College (the oldest of its kind in Canada) is ranked fifth best in the world. Trying to better understand the relationship between animals and global pandemics is one of its top priorities.

“Fully 70 per cent of transmittable diseases come from animals,” Vaccarino said. (COVID-19 is thought to have originated from bats in China.)

Universities are also trying to find the upside of the COVID-19 crisis. Gertler points to the fact that, with all courses online, post-secondary educations may now be more accessible to some. Students can also save some money living at home. “We can now reach people we’ve never reached in the past,” he said.

“Also, expertise has never been more important,” Gertler continued. “Our experts are in the media every day. It’s unprecedented in my lifetime. Our experts are getting so much public exposure.”

For U of T, the worldwide search for a vaccine isn’t just a crucial humanitarian mission; it’s a hugely important financial one as well. Fully 25 per cent of U of T’s students come from outside Canada. But they make up one-third of the university’s budget. The economic impact of foreign students’ dollars on communities across Canada is staggering — $22 billion annually — bigger than the softwood lumber and auto parts industries combined.

“Will they still want to come to U of T if their courses are purely online?” Gertler asked. “Over the longer term, we’re quite worried about that. If they can’t come here, they may stay home.”

We’ve done a few programs on The Agenda about the student experience during this pandemic, and, to a person, all our student guests have been miffed about the fact that they haven’t seen a major break on tuition or fees, despite the fact that the student experience isn’t anything like what it normally would be. The universities’ position is that they can’t cut students a break on costs, because it still costs a fortune to run their campuses.

“It’s erroneously assumed that online is cheaper,” Lenton said. “We need production designers, new computer programs, computer programmers. There’s a lot of cost to moving things online. Online is not a solution to bringing down the cost of education.”

On the bigger question of whether 2020 represents a permanent turning point in the way students learn, Gertler (whose academic expertise is in geography and planning) added that we shouldn’t be too quick to come to any overarching conclusions about “clicks over bricks.”

If education increasingly moves online, will universities still need to create more physical space or satellite campuses in the future?

“The long-term history of cities is that they always bounce back in a big way,” Gertler said. “The value of being close together will outweigh the disadvantages.  It’s hard to sustain team interaction virtually over time. The quality of trust erodes over time without face-to-face, planned, and unplanned interaction.”

U of T is asking whether its assumptions about the need for new buildings are still accurate. For example, might the faculty and students of the future need more segregated physical spaces because of the virus?

“We’re asking those questions, but we don’t have all the answers yet,” he said.

Plenty of questions and not enough answers for the $11 billion post-secondary-education system.

The author is the chancellor of Laurentian University, in Sudbury.

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