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Perspectives on the pandemic and PSE

Perspectives on the pandemic and PSE

[James Holobetz (photo of Kate Cushon)]

In March 2020, universities and colleges abruptly shut their doors to students and moved instruction on-line in an effort to contain the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Nine months later, the fallout from the pandemic is becoming increasingly visible. International student enrolments have fallen, workloads have increased, public funding shortfalls are widening, institutions are cutting spending, and precarious workers and contract staff are losing their jobs.

Amid a pandemic that shows no signs of abating, we reached out to academic staff leaders and activists to ask: How is post-secondary education and academic work being affected, and how can we build a better future?

Here’s what they told us.

A new deal for academic research

Julia M. Wright
Chair of the Royal Society of Canada’s COVID-19 Working Group on the Future of Higher Education and the George Munro Chair in English Literature and Rhetoric at Dalhousie University.

The variation in COVID-19 infection rates around the world is an ongoing and tragic, costly lesson in the need for education, policy, and evidence-based governance. Expert advice must reach not only government ministries and the institutions under their responsibility, such as schools and hospitals, but also decision-makers in other workplaces and public venues.

Canada faces significant challenges beyond the pandemic’s impact on our health, economy, and social fabric, including the climate crisis and rising inequality. We urgently need PhDs who can work across disciplines and sectors at a level adequate to the complexity of these problems and sensitive to the specifics of our ecosystems, governance, laws, cultures, and reconciliation.

The Fundamental Science Review noted that Canada’s “doctorate graduation rates are decidedly below average” among OECD countries. We are also leaving thousands of the PhDs we do have in precarious, teaching-intensive positions where their research gets little-to-no support. PhDs have long been crucial to private-sector R&D and the larger public sector, too, especially healthcare, social services, and the civil service, and this need includes both specific doctoral expertise and general doctoral-level research skills (for instance, advanced literacy and the ability to handle complexity). In short, PhDs are required in areas vital to Canada’s well-being, but our post-secondary system has been under-producing and under-employing PhDs for a generation.

We must rebuild a vibrant post-secondary system that can more effectively serve as the foundation for Canada’s responses to the challenges and crises of our century, and for that we need to bring many more highly qualified scholars into research-supported, continuing employment. Improved federal funding is required, as many have argued for years.

Our institutions can also help by readjusting their budgets. According to Statistics Canada’s Expenditures of universities and degree-granting colleges, total academic salaries were 27.98% of total spending in 2000-01; by 2018-19, this figure had dropped to 26.67%. That 1.31% loss represents over $500m, enough to pay salaries and benefits for about 4,000 additional, full-time faculty.

The revitalization of the post-secondary sector and our research ecosystem is not optional. Not only is Canada’s COVID recovery at stake, but also Canada’s future resilience.

Beware the micro-credential

RM Kennedy
OPSEU College Faculty Division Chair

Less than three months into the pandemic, Colleges Ontario, the advocacy group representing Ontario’s 24 publicly funded colleges, released a white paper, The Future of Ontario’s Workers.

Initiated before the onset of COVID-19, the paper nonetheless makes recommendations for how the colleges can meet labour market challenges accelerated by the pandemic — in particular, automation and diminishing opportunities for less educated workers who have been disproportionately impacted by layoffs. At the centre of Colleges Ontario’s platform is the recommendation that the government fully embrace “microcredentials” as the strategy for retraining the workforce in the wake of pandemic economic displacements.

While there is no national consensus on a definition, a microcredential can be broadly described as a short duration program of study (usually one semester or less) designed to provide the rapid acquisition of a limited number of in demand job competencies.

Colleges already have numerous offerings that might be characterized as a microcredential. These short-duration programs are designed to upskill a worker who already holds a recognizable credential. It provides an “add on” or specialization that complements an existing body of knowledge.

However, the Colleges Ontario proposal, consistent with approaches being embraced by conservative forces globally, takes microcredentials to the next level. In their definition, a microcredential should represent a “portion of a traditional credential” that reflects immediate in-demand skills, and can be “stacked” so that the learner may eventually acquire a whole credential. Within their discourse, the advantage is that employers are rapidly provided with job ready workers (without having to invest in training them) and students, who may not be able to afford the tuition or time to acquire a whole credential, can immediately attain training leading to employment.

It is difficult to overstate how troubling this vision of higher education, and the micro credentialing is. While there will always be a place for value-added specializations, the unbundling of whole credentials will put immense downward pressure on the wages of Canada’s most vulnerable workers. Why employ a skilled carpenter or personal support worker when you can hire a kitchen installer or care assistant with a so-called microcredential “badge” far more cheaply and with no employer investment? This is a credentialing system designed for the gig economy, where future workers are funneled into a churning stream of self-funded short-order skills.

All higher education, including applied and vocational education, underwrites both a social and economic good, with a complex interplay between the two. Denying access to whole and foundational disciplinary knowledge will undermine the ability of a new generation of workers to master the scope of their chosen profession and develop the expertise to advance it.

The solution to unaffordable higher education and the reality of precarious work is not to further deskill workers, but to fully fund post-secondary education, support workers and students in obtaining meaningful credentials that allow for social and educational mobility, and invest in a post-pandemic recovery the prioritizes good jobs for everyone.

Sustaining the heart of higher education

Kate Cushon
Chair of the CAUT Librarians’ and Archivists’ Committee

The phrase “the library is the heart of the institution” is descriptive of what a college or university’s library and archives represent. As a metaphor, it can also illuminate the crucial and wide-ranging functions of libraries and archives: librarians and archivists are involved in all academic activities, from research to teaching; we work with all who pursue higher learning, from new undergrads to professors emeriti; we manage and advance the flow of information through all levels of scholarly activity. When the heart is functioning well, all library and archives services are fully and fulsomely available to all users. In the age of COVID-19, we see what happens when the heart’s essential functions may be threatened.

The pandemic has presented many challenges to Canada’s institutions of higher education and will continue to do so into the future. Campus closures and limited access to physical/print collections has meant that librarians and archivists have created and deployed a variety of methods for delivering instruction, information, and collections to our users. But because the development of digital/remote services and collections in libraries and archives has been a decades-long project predating COVID-19, staff were already primed for a catastrophe that mandated the isolation and distancing that we’ve seen implemented. While the “physical” shift needed has been immense, it is part-and-parcel of the road down which Canadian library and archives staff have already begun to explore, and we can be rightly proud of how much of our services and collections remain accessible during these extraordinary times.

As post-secondary institutions have closed and reopened in response to the pandemic, the sector-wide pivot to remote delivery has been an opportunity for libraries and archives to provide largely uninterrupted service and collections access. Although every library and archive has experienced challenges, the provision of instruction and reference has continued almost seamlessly at most institutions. Online collections have become a major focus for institutions and for publishers, and the landscape has the potential to change rapidly as the urgent need for universal online access to collections continues. Access to physical and print collections present unique challenges that libraries and archives have met in innovative ways that prioritize safety, respect copyright and licence conditions, and provide access mechanisms that serve the academic needs of the institution.

Public education for all

Nicole Picton
Executive Director, Canadian Federation of Students

In March 2020, the shift to online learning exposed significant short-term issues for post-secondary education; those which we know are only further exacerbating long-term systemic problems. Some of these concerns include dependency on exploitative international student fees, accessibility barriers to learning, lack of affordability, deteriorating mental and physical health of students and their teachers, and employment disparities, seen among workers on campus, and in the labour market for young Canadians.

COVID-19 has deepened the state of precarity for students and vulnerable workers, with resulting financial, physical, emotional, and mental burdens placed on them and their families. For students, their ability to continue their education is an ever-surmounting concern amidst immense debt loads and a continually worsening economic crisis. These concerns are heightened for international students who have been explicitly excluded from any form of sub-par financial support that the federal government has made available to domestic students. It’s a situation that shouldn’t, and wouldn’t, be so detrimental had a resilient, fully publicly funded system been in place to withstand these impacts.

In a time when transformational change is necessary to pull citizens out of this pandemic and propel this country forward, post-secondary education is essential in building a better and stronger society for today, tomorrow, and for years to come.

Yet, post-secondary education in Canada remains excluded from recovery plans announced to date. With adequate federal, provincial, and territorial funding of PSE, barriers to education will be lowered , research and support staff defended, educational opportunities and experiences will be more fair and higher-quality for every identity intersection, and the well-being and safety of everyone involved will be supported. We need a plan to stop the downloading of the costs of post-secondary education onto students and their families if we are to address affordability, access and quality concerns.

Strengthening academic freedom

Jean Portugais
President and Hans Poirier, Researcher
Fédération québécoise des professeures et professeurs d’université (FQPPU)

The COVID-19 pandemic, which is severely testing nations worldwide, has also clearly brought its share of uncertainty and remains a widespread concern for all sectors of our society — and universities and colleges are no exception. As the pandemic forces a reconsideration of how our society works, so too we must rethink the college and university, how it functions, how it is funded, and how it fits in to society.

How can we ensure that teaching and research missions are carried out under optimal conditions, both now and in the future? What is the desirable balance between the necessary autonomy held by institutions of learning and their accountability to public authorities and to the population at large?

These issues have long prompted vigorous discussions, but have become more acute today, given the various issues at play in our society. The public health emergency, the climate change crisis, digital technology deployment, technological development, population aging, the rise of right-wing populism, polarization of views, increased belief in conspiracy theories and false rumours, tensions between secular and religious conceptions of public institutions, and the recession are just some of the challenges we are facing.

Governments and the institutions themselves need to affirm institutional autonomy, create independent bodies to manage and harmonize data, review and improve university and research funding, define the conditions for and support the development of quality distance education, the achievement of gender parity and better representation of people from diverse faculties, as well as strengthening links between universities and society.

Universities and colleges do not evolve in isolation, and they are also affected, to varying degrees, by the issues with which our society is grappling. They create and disseminate knowledge that shines light on a variety of phenomena, in addition to guiding our decisions. Collectively, we rely on these institutions and, by extension, on the professors and teaching and research staff, to separate facts from opinions, and to provide us with the tools that allow for evidence-based conversations, for the benefit of democracy and in the public interest. Fulfilling this public service mission requires that we have the freedom to teach, to publish research findings, and to express our views publicly.

The protection of academic freedom is essential to the most important issue that emanates from this project so that, in the future, the university is able to pursue its missions in the public interest, while retaining the confidence of citizens in the ability of universities, their professors, and research and teaching staff to produce knowledge and transmit it free from any interference.

Tackling systemic discrimination

Momin Rahman
Co-Chair of the CAUT’s Equity Committee

The pandemic has highlighted and amplified existing inequities in the academy. Without concerted advocacy and effort, it may serve to further deepen the structural issues in the academy that create and perpetuate systemic discrimination. We must also maintain a clear focus on how racism operates systemically through institutions. Universities and colleges are no exception.

Whereas rhetoric had ratcheted up on equity, diversity and inclusion before the pandemic and the summer protests, effective actions are still largely absent. The contemporary management discourse of ‘inclusive excellence’ is not matched by institutional transformations in hiring practices, equitable compensation, curriculum development or resource allocation for equity initiatives.

We need to name and see institutional racism to begin the transformation from rhetoric to outcomes. We can perhaps understand the reluctance of administrators to name their institutions as racist because they may think first of the consequences for public relations, branding, and recruitment. But we also need to acknowledge that actively adopting equity policies and rhetoric without naming systemic racism is a form of institutional blackface — the parodying of concern for racism through various means such as tokenistic visual representations in marketing, tokenistic use of racialized students and faculty to ‘educate’ others, or demonstrate that the workplace cannot be racist, and endorsing policy without linking it to outcomes. Too often, inclusive excellence language is used to provide a veneer of credibility without really wanting to see or address the differential, systemic, experiences of racialization or other forms of discrimination.

As academic staff and unions, we should not be participating in this institutional parodying of justice for our racialized colleagues and communities. We need to develop actions that deliver real outcomes, and to do that we need to engage with various aspects of the institution’s structures, from departmental curriculum, to research hiring committees, right through to embedding equity policies through Senates and, along the way, marketing, recruitment and communications offices.

While I don’t mean to suggest that these institutional steps are easy to organize and achieve, one overall strategy is to ‘STEP IN’. Identify your overall STrategy, including your ultimate goal. Identify the specific Equity Practices that would address the problem by transforming current workplace practice. Identify what Institutional steps are needed to implement these practices (awareness, education, training, new policies, etc). Determine ways to ensure that the implementation of equity practices is Normalized within our institutions (policy reviews, reporting structures and oversight).

As society debates how we build back better, we too in the academy must discuss a just recovery that sees systemic racism and takes real action against it.

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