Resolutions for Canadian Postsecondary in 2021
Last year, a lot of people pegged their hopes on the flip of the calendar to 2021. Just weeks after COVID-19 made landfall in Canada, the borders were shut, schools were closed, and lockdowns were ordered across the country. Nine months later, Canadians couldn’t wait to start over.
While the switch from December to January is not really any different than any other day, January is a month when many of us evaluate the past year to set goals for the year to come. So as approach the end of the first month of the new year, when it comes to Canada’s postsecondary sector, what did it get right and what did it get wrong in 2020? And how can those lessons inform where the sector should go next in 2021?
How Canadian Postsecondary was Unprepared for 2020
1) Continuing to wait for a cash injection that’s not coming
As I touched on last year, Canada’s postsecondary sector is facing a huge funding shortfall for a number of reasons, but chief among them is decreasing direct funding from the government. As governments of all stripes continue to invest more and more dollars earmarked for postsecondary education directly into students in the form of tuition assistance and rebates, it's clear the golden age of institutions being flush with government cash is unlikely to ever return.
2) Not having robust online educational infrastructure in place
In 2020, most institutions had some kind of virtual footprint. Some had developed platforms that enabled them to offer professional degrees online. Others had only dipped their toes into the virtual side of learning by the time the pandemic hit. It’s now clearer than ever that virtual learning is no longer a nice-to-have in an institution’s portfolio. It will be a core aspect of programming for at least the next year and an important way to prepare workers for increasingly virtual workplaces for years to come.
3) Scrambling to deliver campus-level support online
One of the bigger challenges institutions faced in 2020 was all the extra work they took on to ensure students felt supported at a distance as the pandemic suddenly changed everything around them. Institutions tried to fill gaps as best they could, but those without virtual programming directed at student well-being struggled to maintain their usual level of student support when that work moved entirely online.
4) Failing to address workforce and skills gaps
Speaking of skills, government postsecondary funding -- and as a result institutional focus --continues to remain centred largely on getting students to enrol in undergraduate studies while largely ignoring graduate-level study. This means that new professionals looking to move up in the workplace, or more experienced workers looking to upskill or retrain, have been left almost entirely out of institutional financial sustainability plans. By doing this, governments are missing an opportunity to invest in the workforce and institutions are missing out on a growing revenue stream.
5) Lacking a plan for the future
The postsecondary system is heading for a major disruption with falling enrolment numbers due to changing demographics and a continued funding crunch that the old solutions have failed to address in a sustainable way. Institutions can no longer count on endless enrolment growth -- or as the pandemic has shown, huge dollars from international students -- to fund their future programming in a complicated post-pandemic landscape.
The good news is that each of these areas that caught the sector unprepared are areas they can move the needle on in 2021.
Resolutions for Canadian Postsecondary in 2021
1) Introduce virtual infrastructure built for the future
Institutions should use 2021 as a testing ground to improve what’s in place and begin plans to make permanent, long-term investments in virtual learning and virtual campus-style supports for students. For Universities and Colleges in Ontario, take advantage of the resources and funding available from eCampusOntario's Virtual Learning Strategy. By learning from the present to plan for the future, the sector can quickly catch up to the already vibrant virtual learning environment in place in other countries.
2) Create a path to sustainable funding by bridging the skills gap
As I’ve laid out before, the old way to generate revenue was to hike enrolment, either the kind that governments historically paid for at the undergraduate level, or the more recent approach of attracting a larger and larger number of international students. But with falling enrolment and the international student market complicated by COVID-19, institutions need a new option. In 2021, they should turn to the largely untapped market of graduates already in the workforce looking to upskill or retrain. Not only will this help boost long term financial sustainability, but it will also help address the skills gap employers keep lamenting across Canada.
3) Build towards 2030
Canadian institutions need to start planning for the future. In 2021, they need to become fluently virtual, sustainably funded, and market-focused to address the changing needs of students, the workforce, and their own communities. To do that, they can’t look back to 2020 and play catch up. They need to look forward a decade and determine who they want to be and how they want to be seen around the world.
As the postsecondary sector continues to move online, there are no longer any borders that can insulate institutions against market creep from their international competitors. But that also means an institution’s growth is also no longer limited by Canadian borders – but by how far they are willing to take their vision of the future. In the rest of 2021, we’ll learn more about which institutions are ready to redefine themselves in the new global reality and which are about to get left behind.