Colleges Post-Pandemic: Survive to Thrive
In a few short months in 2020 and as a result of the pandemic, Canadian colleges went from thriving to survival mode. It was a shocking change, going from record surpluses to potential deficits, from searching for space to Covid-emptied campuses.
Where and what is the way out? As in Joni Mitchell’s refrain, “We can’t return, we can only look behind from where we came.” The road back is not a choice. So we need a “map” of the way forward. For institutions that can and will make it all the way through, quite possibly that journey involves four stages
Survival to Transition to Redesign to Emergence
The Survival stage involved closing campuses and making the best possible out of an impossible situation. Ironically, it put many students, faculty, staff and administrators in the same boat: experimenting with how to learn, teach, transact and plan online and on Zoom, WebEx or Teams. Survival has been a very tough phase, but it has also been a learning phase that informs what is to come.
Survival mode has morphed into Transition. Transition altered semester dates, intakes, delivery modes, complement, budgets and more. It required scenarios, phases, common planning but individual, institutional decisions. Large scale projects were launched to enable, for example, a Fall 2020 with hundreds or thousands of international students starting their Canadian studies and experience in their own countries. Transition is an entirely necessary stage, moving from survival mode and digging the way out from precipitous decline. Nevertheless, it has the natural limitations of carrying on or returning to what was rather than creating what will be.
The third stage is different in nature. It involves larger-scale renewal and redesign anticipating a “new normal” in our economy and our society. Redesign is more oriented to the future than the present. It leaves behind incremental change and involves deep-seated thinking and transformation. This is the stage in which colleges must ask “Who are we?”, “Who do we want to be?” and “What do students, employers and our society need us to be?”.
In asking such questions, it is entirely possible that many will conclude that the previous stage of thriving had the seeds of unsustainability in it. Possibly it will turn out that the Covid-19 pandemic did not create the reasons for redesign; rather it added reasons and urgency. In this stage, there could be a growing consensus that all stakeholders – from students to employers, from communities to governments – need us to develop new ways to respond to a restructuring economy.
One such growing need has led to Ontario colleges’ current work on microcredentials. At this stage, it is impossible to know the potential scope of this activity. But it is possible to see that design of a new type of qualification poses complex questions and involves a lot of redesign in everything from funding to tuition policy, from intakes to collective agreements, from services to collaborative development.
Other types of redesign in the years ahead will no doubt go right to the core of institutional vision and mission and the student experience. Just what is it that students expect and get from a campus experience and from our cohort-based approach to a college education? What is our value proposition? And in what ways are students entirely right when they say an online education just is not the same? How can we learn from our virus-induced initiatives to provide the best options and resources for students? These and many other such questions need more explicit answers than we often provide. An era of redesign is a time for asking the difficult questions and arriving at the best possible answers.
All of this will lead in the 2020s to the emergence of renewed and redesigned colleges. The “re” is important here. It is not a matter of making new institutions from scratch. We must look “behind from where we came” to longstanding and valued strengths. So in thinking about the redesign phase, it is useful to sketch out both what might be new and what will be carried forward from these roots.
Finally, all this work leads to a fourth stage which we have called emergence. We should caution that this is neither the promised land nor a butterfly emerging from a cocoon, to mix the metaphors a bit. It will not become a static and steady state, but it will profit from all the learning from the survival, transition and redesign stages.
As we reflect on these four stages, we acknowledge that they are neither discrete nor separate. They overlap and flow from one to the next. We recommend conceptualizing these stages, though, for several reasons. First, we need a map – a way of looking at and anticipating what is to come. Second, we have to articulate what’s ahead to employees and employers, communities and governments, for joint understanding, alignment of efforts, synergy and investment. Third, we have to evaluate our capabilities to undertake each stage, realising that strength with one might not translate into strength with another. This then leads to the fourth value of the stages: tooling up. That involves technology, design thinking, and strategic alliances. Most importantly, it involves the people we will rely on at every phase from ideas to implementation.
To colleagues across the country, we recognize the extraordinary situation you are going through and the challenging but rewarding stages that lie ahead. And as signs on lawns and in windows urged people on during the initial months of the pandemic, “We can do it.” So can colleges. Survive. Transition. Redesign. Emerge. With determination and creative thinking plus help from all of your partners and with intense focus on those you will serve, You can do it.