When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, significant and rapid changes were implemented at universities across Canada. As campuses were closed, classes were swiftly moved online, research was paused, and institutional decision-making became more centralized.
Health and safety were top concerns for many faculty, students, and staff at the beginning of the pandemic, but, as time wore on, workload-related stress surged and anxiety about the future grew. The very nature of the academy and the world in which we live seemed to be shifting around us.
Online teaching and research may have allowed us to connect in new ways, but it has also left many feeling unsatisfied and unsupported. The expertise of scientists, doctors, and nurses may have carried us through the pandemic, but trust in experts—whose work forms the foundations of the academy—seems to be declining.
What will the future of the academy look like? Across Canada, government spending increased in efforts to minimize the pandemic’s impact, but neoliberal government budgeting could mean fiscal austerity for years to come—an ominous notion for postsecondary institutions already considered chronically underfunded.
The legacy of the past two years will play out for decades and the consequences will be felt disparately in different communities—potentially marking a paradigm shift in postsecondary education.
So, this issue of Academic Matters seemed like an appropriate opportunity to explore the future of universities in Ontario, and across Canada, as we emerge from this global pandemic.
In an overview of the myriad ways the pandemic has impacted higher education, Ken Steele considers the aspects of postsecondary education that are likely to return to a pre-COVID normal and those changes that are likely here to stay. He warns that while some of the pandemic’s challenges may be behind us, more lie ahead.
Yvonne Su explores the feelings of anxiety and stress that many have been feeling over the past two years. Reflecting on the importance of healthy collaborative relationships in education and research, she points to the wave of kind and caring communities created at the beginning of the pandemic as an approach we should embrace over the long term.
Examining his experiences teaching virtually, Ari Gandsman notes the lack of active participation and engagement so important for learning. Online education removes some barriers to learning, but it creates others and there are important lessons to be learned if online education is to play a larger role in postsecondary education going forward.
Elizabeth Buckner looks at what the pandemic means for institutional internationalization strategies. Before the pandemic, international student enrolment at Canadian universities and colleges had been growing rapidly (as were the fees these students were paying). With national borders opening back up again, is there an opportunity to re-examine our approach to international student education?
Finally, Simon Lewsen and Chloë Ellingson, the 2020 recipients of OCUFA’s Mark Rosenfeld Fellowship in Higher Education Journalism, investigate the mental health crisis facing college and university students. Mental health supports continue to be a major focus for university administrations, yet rates of mental illness amongst students are still rising—a trend amplified by the pandemic.
There is a feeling of great uncertainty about what will come next at Canadian universities. However, in this moment of abundant possibility, there is potential to chart a new path forward informed by pandemic experiences and to refocus the academy on its mandate to advance knowledge in the public interest.
Thanks to all of this issue’s contributors for taking the time to consider these important issues. If we hope to move towards a more vibrant and inclusive future for postsecondary education, then we must look ahead with a more critical eye, ask some big questions, and set out a hopeful vision for the future of our universities.
This is my final issue as Editor-in-Chief of Academic Matters. It has been a hugely enriching and rewarding experience. My gratitude to all the amazing writers who have contributed during my tenure. You made every issue special.
A reminder that all the articles in this issue, and many more, are available on our website: AcademicMatters.ca.
Thanks for reading.