The Pandemic Innovation Test for Universities 


As anyone who has ever studied at one, taught at one or worked in administration or support staff at one knows, a university is both a bustling, humanist business model and a community. The health and economic risks of the COVID-19 pandemic have presented a unique set of challenges on bricks-and-mortar campuses, as the longstanding debate about online education has suddenly become less academic.


Lori Turnbull 

Like all other institutions and industries, universities in Canada and around the world have been jolted by the realities of COVID-19. Professors, students, and staff have all had to cope with the challenges of teaching and learning online.

Efforts to develop proficiency in online teaching have required significant investments from universities and faculty in terms of time, money, and patience. Meanwhile, the heaviest burden is on the students. As readings, recorded videos, and assignments pile up, students are under tremendous pressure to perform without the usual social supports around them. 

Many sports programs and other extra-curriculars, which provide opportunities for bonding, exercise, and downtime, have been cancelled for the season. The fact is, most university campuses are not designed for physical distancing. Residences, libraries, gyms, and dining halls are packed with people and, when it is time for everyone to switch classes, so are the sidewalks and streets. 

Changes in workload have fueled tension between university boards and labour unions and, at some universities, negotiations are happening (and/or breaking down) in the first full term of online learning. Both faculty and staff have had significant adjustments to their workloads as a result of the changes to teaching and learning necessitated by pandemic restrictions on gathering.

Traditional approaches to calculating workload are not as effective when people are working from home. Screen fatigue is a real thing. And when we are all working in separate spaces, it is much harder to tell when a colleague needs a laugh or a shoulder. People with children at home are navigating work/life balance every minute of the day.

Over the spring and summer, the big fear for universities was around enrolment for the fall. What if students decided to take a year off, rather than pay full tuition for a year of Zoom lectures? What if restrictions on global travel were to severely curtail the enrolment of foreign students, whose tuition fees are even higher (and often drastically so) than those for domestic students? Furthermore, tuition dollars are not the only source of revenue for universities. User fees, gym memberships, summer camps for kids, and ticket sales usually provide some cash flow, but much of that has dried up during the pandemic. 

This all sounds pretty doom and gloom, but it is not all bad news. Universities are and ought to be especially suited to innovation, and so the realities of COVID-19 have given birth to a wide range of tests and strategies for universities.

Key to this innovation is the very real competition among universities. Now that learning has largely been moved online, and the on-campus experience is either not applicable or very different than last year, universities need to develop new strategies to distinguish themselves from one another. In some cases, this has taken the form of bold initiatives in branding that reinforce a university’s identity. But universities are also focusing on their competitive advantages. Institutions that offer a diverse suite of graduate programs have a competitive advantage in that they offer unique programs that are not duplicated elsewhere. 

Studley Campus at Dalhousie University in Halifax. “Universities are communities,” as Lori Turnbull writes, where the way of life has been profoundly affected by the pandemic. DiAnn L’Roy Flickr photo

Prior to COVID, there was already a proliferation of specialized graduate degrees that go beyond the typical Master of Arts or Master of Science to build credentials in specific areas of study or to bring disciplines together in what Western University calls “Collaborative Specializations.” These unique educational “products”, to put it in crass terms, help universities to differentiate themselves in a sea of online programs. 

The pandemic timeline has been too short for academic units to develop new degrees on the fly, but innovation has occurred in the offering of “micro-credentials.” These are certificates, diplomas, workshops or even single courses that are designed to draw students with an interest or curiosity in the subject matter who, for their own reasons, do not want or need an entire degree.

Micro-credentials are much quicker and easier to design and work through the approvals chain than are full degrees, and so are relatively easy to lift off the ground. What is more, the entry requirements for these programs can be modified from what is normally expected for degree entry, which can expand the applicant pool and therefore grow the university environment, which can be a very attractive prospect for mid-career individuals seeking to build credentials or simply explore a curiosity.

The fees charged for these offerings can help to offset what has been lost in other areas. Many universities have recognized the opportunity that the pandemic presents for learning and is offering courses specifically designed to build skills in pandemic planning, risk management, trauma support, and teamwork. 

Universities are communities. The key challenge for all universities during this time has been to maintain that sense of belonging, even as offices, classrooms, labs, and university pubs are largely empty. Universities have risen to this challenge by finding new ways of creating and connecting with people.

Online panels that are open to the public have become commonplace, which will help universities to stay more present in the larger community even as pandemic restrictions become a thing of the past. This requires academics and universities to think differently about how they disseminate research and knowledge. 

Universities have always played leading roles in local and regional economies in Canada, and partnerships with governments and private entities are more important now than perhaps ever before. University researchers are indispensable to Canada’s response to COVID-19. In university labs, researchers are searching for a vaccine; in virtual meeting rooms, professors are meeting with public health officials to develop guidelines for dealing with trauma, isolation, and loss of loved ones; others are consulting with government officials about how to design relief programs and to plan for economic recovery down the road. The pandemic has reiterated and emphasized the pivotal role for universities as public institutions.

COVID-19 is still with us and so the overall effect on Canada’s universities is still impossible to know for certain. It is possible that not all universities will be able to stay afloat and that dreaded conversations around potential amalgamations will become necessary. 

What’s certain is that no university will be able to return to business as usual. Students will have different needs going forward, as the new post-pandemic economy will require new skills and competencies. 

Universities will need to continue to innovate to respond to those needs and to make transformative contributions to public dialogues that are taking place regarding the legacies of racism and colonialism. The pandemic has challenged Canada’s universities, but has reinforced their public value as well.  

Contributing Writer Lori Turnbull is an Associate Professor and Director of the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University and a co-winner of the Donner Prize.