Schools and students in limbo as virtual fall term looms
if you remember the feeling of graduating of stepping out of high school and into the world of possibilities opening up in front of you of making big decisions while for hundreds of thousands of Canadian students this is white a summer to be stepping out into the world and about to be quite a time for making those big decisions right now. Universities and colleges across the country are making plans for the fall. They're making plans with an abundance of caution and they're doing it while acknowledging that they really have no idea what the fall will bring. So they're being careful in their shifting as much of what they offer students as they can online but depending on the program that might not be that much so would be students have a choice to make just like they always have it can start their post secondary education right away mostly online and get working on their degree or they can take a year off and get a decent job and make. Some probably can't do that actually or if they're really lucky they can take a gap year and go out and travel probably not. GonNa do that either. So what are schools and students doing to prepare for an unprecedented fall? How different will planned online courses from the hastily thrown together? Zoom lecture that we saw this spring. What happens to the hundreds of things about a post secondary education that can't be replaced? Virtually and what options do students who are currently enrolled have if they think that what their schools are offering is a poor replacement for what they signed up for Jordan Heath Rawlings. And this is the big story. Joe Friesen is the Post Secondary Education reporter with the globe in Mail. I Gel Hi Jordan. How are you? I'm doing pretty well and I hope you're getting on okay. Yeah things are good thank you. Why don't we take a step back from the pandemic stuff that we're GonNa talk about and you can kind of set up in a normal universe on a normal time line? What would colleges and universities and students be doing right now? Like where would we be in the process of getting ready for the fall term? Well colleges and universities right now would be a couple of different modes on the one hand. They would be getting ready. To celebrate. Convocation students would be graduating in the spring. And this is one of those momentous occasions that has sort of been postponed by the pandemic and they would also be starting to turn their minds toward the fall so getting courses ready trying to get a sense of what their enrollment will be for the fall. What the mix of domestic and international students ought to be What kinds of course offerings they want to have for the year But of course things are looking very different right now and so College campuses at the are pretty quiet. What are they doing to sort of ramp up preparations for the fall and I guess also to try to give their graduating students. Some kind of that occasion. Are they doing anything about that? Well on other convocation front. Many universities said about a month ago that they planned not to have conversation this year and that was very upsetting for a lot of people who worked hard for a long time to get to this moment. Something that they wanted to share with their friends and family and so as a result there's been a movement to create these kind of online convocation ceremonies. You might have seen some videos. I think it was a Japanese university that had robots walking across the stage but the kind of an ipad image of a student where the where the face would be. The robot would receive a degree. I don't know of any Canadian. Schools are going that far. But there's going to be some kind of online ceremony and a lot of places I think. People are are going out on their porches and Kim gowns and caps to have a little celebration with balloons and signs and that sort of thing. People are doing their best to to make something special because it is a pretty. It's a great accomplishment for for all those who get through it and it's something that deserves to be celebrated but the the circumstances this year are just so different. I don't think any one anticipated. It would be like this. In some cases there was some upset about the the absence of ceremony and petitions were started for example to make sure that something will happen. I think when we return to something closer to normal a lot of schools said they there will be something in person but you know that could be late in the fall could be into twenty twenty one and could be even later than that we. We just don't know yet. And in the meantime do we have any idea what the fall will look like in universities. What are those plans looking like? It is really different across the country but for the most part schools are saying that they expect to do online delivery for the most part with the opportunity to have some smaller in person face to face settings. And when when I say it's different across the country of course it's the local health authorities who play a big role in deciding what is possible for public institutions so in places like New Brunswick Manitoba or even be C. Now where they've been really successful in getting. The curve flattened and getting almost no new cases. It may be that there will be some in person in class instruction. It won't be the same as before. I don't think you can have a crowded lecture theatre but you could have students sitting a meter apart in a lecture theatre and so two hundred fifty. If you plan for it to seat only fifty th that might be a potential viable classroom. La- similarly labs with a few people might be able to be run. There are some American schools where the climate is a little better than have said. They plan to hold classes outside. Which we've heard is one of the safer ways of getting together with people you know with enough distance so that the virus could dissipate in the air. So there's a wide range of possibilities but the big thing that we're hearing is that it will still be primarily online in the fall for most students in most places and that has caused a lot of uncertainty about what the school year might look like. When you talk to people who are making these plans and trying to build a picture of what what the year looks like. How do they wrestle with the fact that they've got a plan for something right now that begins in September and students are making decisions right now about September Lake at this point unless I'm wrong? We don't have a great idea of what like three weeks or four weeks. It looks like no exactly and that makes it really tough and people expect firm answers now because there. These are life changing decisions. Which University will I go to will? I moved to that city and nobody. Nobody can tell you what what three or four weeks from now. We'll look like as you point out so I don't know how they make those decisions but the great thing about universities for the most part is they are. They are the places where the experts who we are turning to reside. That's where you'll find the the top scientist. The doctors the administrators the people who have worked in public health. Who have some experience of this kind of planning? They are to for the most part to be found in university so the university administrations have a great resource at their fingertips and that they can call on at the University of Toronto. They have the goal at other universities. They have similar levels of experience. Who can who can guide them as they try to make these decisions. But it's certainly it's not easy and big institutions for the most part. They're going to probably a err on the side of safety and caution they they have a responsibility to do the same thing I so I think. That's what everyone will be thinking about. First and foremost is how you keep students and the general population safe if and when we get back to something closer to normal. Is there any kind of structured deadline to any of this? I mean there are students. I presume right now trying to make that decision if it's still worth Tuition money to go if it's going to be mostly online. And do we know if they'll have a firm idea of what their fall will look like before they have to make that final call. I think they will have a better idea. Some universities just in the last week or so have made their intentions clear and McGill for example. I spoke to the president there week ago. And she said we thought it was only fair to tell students How we expect the fall to look and that in macgill's case they said it will be primarily online. You said something similar Concordia University of Ottawa. And now more and more universities are saying coming with their statements that for the most part walk the line of saying primarily online with a hybrid mix of in-person where possible early June. I think is probably the time to look at as being a fair moment for universities to start making clear what they think the fall will be that gives students and their parents at least a month or two before they have to make these big decisions so I think by by mid June. Probably things will be clearer. But it's starting. It's starting to get clear. Now that I think the fall will be online primarily with maybe some local variations in places where the virus has been well contained and smaller in-person hands on opportunities where the virus has been or where the situation is safe enough to go ahead with something like that. I want to ask you a little bit. About what those online classes will be like because when this Began back in. I think it was late March or early April. We spoke to both a professor and a student. Who were you know? Engaged in distance learning and they both spoke about a number of challenges Just in terms of different professors using different software or not being able to connect with students and offer meaningful feedback. And you know the pass fail system and all that kind of stuff. That was slapped together really hastily at the time. Do we have a sense of whether or not this will be different from that If there's you know protocols and grading in place I think the universities are hoping it will be different. What happened in March was basically an emergency scenario? Where they had hadn't planned for something like this to happen. And so people who who make these distinctions will say. We didn't really have online learning in March vote. We had was an emergency transition to online delivery of primarily offline courses now with a few more months to prepare. I think I think it will be better organized. I think you will see maybe less of the the big variations in the level of quality of the courses because universities do have resources to help professors make these courses better in an online format however the scale of this is still so huge. I don't know that every course we'll be able to get the benefit of fully online educational treatment. You know it takes quite a bit of time and money and resources to make something Really Great in an online environment and even know there are four months now. I don't know that everything will be working perfectly the way that the professors would hope. I think there still be a little bit of that scramble going on Some learning as as people figure out what works well and what we're doing what doesn't work so well and some students will students will have to kind of work through those adaptations but I suspect it will be better organized than it wasn't march just out of the sheer fact that it's not an emergency situation the way it was then So I think universities are hoping that they will have learned some lessons and we'll be able to provide a high quality education. I think when a lot of US picture Online classes as we think of a professor you know maybe recording or even doing a live video lecture and taking questions handing out assignments. But what's going to happen with the programs that rely on people being hands on like a? I'm thinking here of like cooking are fashion or even like journalism school. I mean a lot of the people that come through the programs now and come to our studio learned in studios provided by the journalism school. And there's no way you can recreate that setup at home without spending a ton of money and that's a tough question and I don't really know what the answer is. I think institutions will do their best to keep as many programs as possible up and running but there may be cases where they have to say. We can't do this properly right now and so we have to take a break you know. I know at the University of Saskatchewan. There's some of their life science programmes in veterinary programs in health science programs that they just weren't going to be able to run in this spring term given the distancing rules and so they said those students just won't be taking those classes right now They won't want situations like that to last very long and so I suspect they will be trying to tackle those questions right now. How how to do it and people are. There are always people who will say it's possible you just have to think of a way. I don't know and for the students in those programs I worry that the quality and the level of education that they're GONNA get won't be the same and won't be as good and so those are particularly if you're going into a program like that or even coming back to it as a returning student. There's some tough decisions to be made there about whether the kind of education you're going to get is what you want and deserve or whether you should take a break for a year or two and and wait and see what happens. Are there any options for students to do that to either? Defer acceptance for a year. Take a pause in the middle of their program or are there any full or partial refunds available for students who've already paid for fuller part of the semester there were some campaigns launched by students to try to get some kind of a refund last in the you know the the winter term as ended during the opening stage of this pandemic and. I think universities have said they weren't going you know they're not typically going to refund tuition in the middle of a semester certainly on on a large scale basis. They probably listening to individuals on a case by case if they were unable to complete their studies for any number of mitigating reasons. But there was. I think they were happy to to refund. People who were living in residence for example some universities have refunded fees in some areas. Because you know you couldn't go to the gym the way you used to. You weren't taking advantage of some student services the way you used to so. There's no sense charging for those Certainly doesn't seem fair but for students who want to defer for a year if they're looking going back in September that's certainly a viable option for them if they wanted to take a gap year. Which you know. I've had many people getting in touch with me asking about what their options might be for a gap year. That's a lot of people are talking about that. And you know for their part. University administrators are saying you know the enrollment maybe down a little bit. This year as people are unsure about what online education might be like it. Certainly it's something on people's minds. What do we know about what's being done to? I mean either. Cancel presumably in some places or recreate In other places the other elements of campus life. And I know in America. They're already talking about well Maybe we can have a college football season but even beyond sports you know the student union or a student newspapers or other kinds of campus groups is that is that moving to online or is that just kind of not going to happen. I don't know that you know when you thought university those those experiences that you get from things like working at student newspaper or meetings other students in clubs or just the day to day socialization and studying together. That would happen at the library. That was almost the most important part of going to university. The kind of the the friendships. You made the big events like sports. I can understand in the United States. There's huge pressure because the money is so big to to get those open again but in Canada. It's a little different so I don't know whether those sports seasons will go ahead in the fall as certainly some universities. I've talked with have said. Oh we'll definitely maintain student clubs online. You know it's possible to get together and zoom at and your shared interest in cycling can be in could be a great way to get together with new friends. But I don't know I'm not. I'm not university age myself anymore. Much is I might wish to be. I don't see that working out as well. I just think that is one thing that will not be as just won't be the same and it won't be as beneficial face to face. Interaction on campuses has always been so. I think that may be something that that is disappointing for people who are really craving that university experience But these are these are the Times. We're living in right now. So I don't know how much of it can be. Salvaged given all of that. And all the changes. You've just talked about. Do we know yet if we're seeing a ton of students more than anecdotally but actually decide to take that gap year or to walk away Do we have any sense of what's going on with enrollment? I know the deadlines not not approaching just yet but do we have early numbers. We don't know yet Because the the kind of the acceptances will earn the confirmations of acceptance. We'll start coming in June so again. It'll be a couple of weeks before we get a better sense of what the picture is like but we know a few things. Interestingly enough enrollment is up at many universities for this spring and summer terms which caught some people by surprise but on the other hand maybe it makes perfect sense because it's a terrible jobs market for many students they have the benefit of the wage subsidy or the CER be so. They're able to stay at home. They can advance their degree and get paid while doing it. And so I think the students who are already in seemed to be team to get more education and you may see that in the fall you may see that people who were working part time and taking two courses might now prefer to take three or four courses because the jobs that they had has disappeared thanks to the corona virus. The big area that is a real concern is international students. Because the Canadian post-secondary system has come to rely on international students to very very significant extent for finances and for for student numbers and it's been estimated that industry alone is worth twenty three billion dollars in Canada. Not Entirely in post-secondary but for the most part and so for those students there's several barriers that they would have to get over to get back to Canada travel bans in place. Airlines aren't flying but the most significant I think is that their paperwork has been stalled either because the standardized tests that they need to take are not being offered in their home countries. So you need to prove a certain level of English proficiency for example or it may be that the universities they have attended before are closed and so they can't get transcripts to the Canadian universities to prove their their Bona Fides and the the the Canadian Sarah Immigration offices abroad. I don't know that they're operating at full capacity so I don't know how many of these applications they're able to even get through at the moment and whether they could interview people face to face. I don't think we're doing that so there's a huge number of barriers to getting new students to Canada. So that's going to be an enrollment shock and revenue shock and it may be that students coming out of Canadian high schools. We'll look at this and say I have so looked forward to this university experience that I've dreamed about that. I've seen on TV that my parents told me about and I don't know that I wanNA start in a pandemic. How big that number will be. But I've heard some universities estimating for a five to ten percent drop. Obviously there's still a lot to be gained from education and at a time when you can't really travel and you can't work for you know for many people that'll be the case. Education is a pretty bet but it may be the I. I would expect to see some weakness in the enrollment numbers this year. I think that would make sense. Will you kind of touched on it? A vet and we've approached this mostly from the student perspective which I think is is the most important but Speaking of Revenue Shock. Lastly I wanna ask you about the impact on the schools themselves How bad could that revenue shock be? We can speak of them as a business. We've seen hundreds and hundreds of businesses. Close Up Shop. Do We know that all the colleges and universities and Canada will survive this? How precarious or some of them. I don't think that we do know that they will all survive. I think this is the kind of thing that could be significant enough that that a few. Don't make it through now. You have you know the the huge research institutions. I imagine they will all be fine. They are absolutely essential not just to the economy of today but the economy of tomorrow that we have we have so much invested in them even in the places where they have very high international student numbers. I think they will find a way to get through this. It's probably at the at the level of the smaller school or in some cases the colleges where they have really gone in heavily for international students to drive a lot of their budget that the the risks are greatest now. I think it's important to make clear that that there was a political decision here in the Canadian Post Secondary System. A long time ago that the puts us in this position which is that. The transfers to institutions have mostly stayed flat for for ten or twenty years in many cases and so the international student. Population has grown as universities have looked for ways to generate more revenue the smaller schools where they have upwards of twenty or thirty percent of their student body coming from overseas and paying tuition fees are two or three or four times higher than the Canadian fees. Those are the ones that will have the The most to lose right now. Or certainly the are at the greatest risk you one university Laurentian in Sudbury has already said that it is concerned about the financial impacts of covid nineteen. I think many others are also very concerned. You know you look at some of those schools in maritimes for example. I think Saint. Mary's has about thirty percent of its students that are International Cape. Breton University has a two thirds of its universe of its students coming from overseas I would think the impacts there will be more significant now. The hope is it's just short-term this we can go back to normal and have a normal entry for students in January and you know that that initial shock can be bridged in a matter of months but we don't know known this. We don't know how long this will last so the longer it goes on the harder it will get for for some institutions. I've heard talk of you know trying to mobilize ways to to get some of those international students to Canada more quickly. But I don't know of any of them will come to fruition. Guess we'll see. Thank you so much Joe for walking us through this. Thanks very much for having me. Joe Friesen post-secondary Education reporter at the Globe and Mail. That was the big story if you would like more at to the Big Story. Podcast DOT CA. You'll find a ton of them. You can also find us on twitter at the Big Story F. P. N. You can email us to the address. Is the big story podcast. That is all one word at. Rci DOT ROGERS DOT COM. We're also in all of your podcast players. You pick your favorite one. You look us up. You find us. Listen you rate and you review. Thanks for listening. I'm Jordan Heath Rawlings. We'll talk tomorrow.