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In my opinion

Imagining the post-pandemic university

We should use what we learned during the COVID-19 pandemic to make university study and work more equitable and inclusive.

BY SHANNON DEA | OCT 22 2021

Since the coronavirus landed early last year, the situation in academia has been grim. Layoffs and furloughs have swept the sector, with women and racialized faculty left especially vulnerable. Some smaller institutions – especially south of the border – are facing insolvency and closure. Student residences have become sites of outbreak. Women scholars’ research output has plummeted.

As Bishop’s University professor Jessica Riddell put it, “COVID is the great ‘truth teller,’ exposing the structural inequalities and systemic racism that have been with us the whole time.”

One possible upside of that truth-telling is that we have a rare chance to redesign universities to address those inequalities. Universities are often likened to large ships that are hard to turn. Storms like COVID-19 can bring winds of change.

How the GI Bill changed higher ed

Consider the effect on higher education of the  GI Bill in the United States. The influx of veterans into postsecondary education after the Second World War forever changed universities – both who participates in them and how they work. North American colleges and universities saw a massive increase in enrollment by working class students, and a consequent increase in social mobility. The institutions responded by creating the large class sizes that are now the norm, and by departmentalizing by discipline. In some disciplines – most notably English – the change in the student body led to important changes in methodology and pedagogical approaches.

Canada’s Veterans Charter offered similar benefits to the GI Bill and, like the GI Bill, greatly increased participation in higher education. College and university enrollments soared and lower income and working-class students, who might not otherwise have had the chance, started to populate campuses. Many universities offered remedial programs for returning veterans to support the new students’ success.

In addition to being directly affected by the Veterans Charter, Canadian higher education was indirectly affected by the GI Bill. As research and teaching norms changed in the U.S., many of those changes were taken up on Canadian campuses.

While the GI Bill opened the door for new kinds of university students, not everyone was welcome. Black veterans who sought to attend college faced obstacles and prejudice. By contrast, (white) women veterans availed themselves of GI Bill-funded educations at a higher rate than their male counterparts. However, factoring non-veterans in, women’s overall rate of post-secondary participation declined.

In Canada as in the U.S., there were inequities. The Veteran’s Charter only extended tuition benefits to high school graduates, thereby largely excluding Indigenous veterans, since before the war most had attended day schools or residential schools, which did not result in high school diplomas. Further, in Québec, there was little change to university participation, both because fewer Québecois(e)s had enlisted in military service and because Québec universities made few accommodations for returning veterans.

Universities need to catch up

In the three-quarters of a century since the GI Bill and Veteran’s Charter, Canadian universities have become much more diverse. According to a recent Universities Canada survey, women now make up the majority of both undergraduate and graduate students, and 40 per cent of students at both levels are racialized. The same survey found that women make up 40 per cent of full-time faculty and 49 per cent of senior university leadership. Further, 21 per cent of full-time faculty are racialized and 22 per cent are disabled.

It’s not all good news. The survey reveals low postsecondary participation by Indigenous people, a leaky undergrad-to-grad-school pipeline for disabled people, and a glass ceiling that keeps racialized and disabled faculty out of the ranks of senior leadership. Despite these obstacles, it is clear that Canadian universities are no longer white male bastions.

Still, universities were designed for straight, white, non-disabled men, and many of those design features remain. As a former non-traditional student (I attended university as a mature student and a parent) turned dean of a faculty with many non-traditional students, I can attest that the design of higher education needs to catch up with what we know about the student body and university employees.

Class schedules assume full-time students with no dependents, making it difficult for students with jobs and families to keep up. Most reading lists remain focused on white authors and white perspectives. Course materials, activities and assessments (things like tests and assignments) are designed for “normal” (that is, non-disabled students), while students with disabilities are forced to seek special accommodations. On the faculty side, the grueling publish-or-perish norms of academia and the pressure to engage in frequent travel for research and conferences both assume something that most faculty members no longer have – a wife at home to take care of the house and the kids.

The end of ‘normal’

In my research on accessibility in academia, I argue that universities need to move beyond systems and norms that assume a particular “normal” student or professor. That assumption of who is normal brings with it a companion assumption that everyone else is “special needs.” In one way or another, though, and at one time or another, all of us are “special needs.” Thus, the line between “normal” and “special needs” users is at best tenuous and at worst a fiction. Universities ought to be designed not for the typical students and professors of 1950, but for a wide range of users with a range of different affordances and needs.

Since the pandemic began, disability advocates have been urging that many of the changes we made in response to COVID-19 actually support accessibility and ought to be retained. For many, going back to “normal” means going back to activities and systems that have long excluded minoritized students and employees from full participation.

Potential for change

COVID-19 has the potential to change higher education just as the GI Bill did. We are witnessing a sea change both in the discussions the pandemic is prompting about inequities in the sector and in our commitment to actually doing something about those inequities. We should seize the opportunity to ensure that the universities we come back to post-pandemic will continue to embrace the flexible design principles that COVID-19 forced to the fore, and in so doing, provide a more robustly equitable environment in which to work and learn.

COVID-19 has made it harder for university personnel to continue to buy into the normal/special needs binary because the pressures of the pandemic are revealing just how varied students’ and employees’ needs are. The pressures of the pandemic have made university personnel more open about the challenges they face in the sector, and in the face of that openness, colleagues are responding with empathy and creativity.

For the first time in my recollection, there is a critical mass of professors seriously discussing the broad range of challenges their students are experiencing (bad Wi-Fi, distant time zones, no private place to study, family health crises, poverty, childcare, disabilities that make remote learning harder…) and how to make their pedagogy as supportive and flexible as possible for different learners’ situations.

Concomitantly, students, faculty and senior university leaders are regularly having similar discussions about the various highly differential challenges that academic staff and other university employees are themselves experiencing, and about how to ensure that COVID-19 doesn’t widen the gap between different groups of employees.

The sector quickly adapted to the “new normal,” by making some aspects of postsecondary education more accessible than ever before. The flexibility offered by remote and asynchronous learning makes it easier for students in remote communities, and students with jobs and family caring responsibilities to take courses. Professors have developed smart, new approaches to course delivery and have taught each other what they learned. Zoom breakout rooms easily support small group discussions even in huge classes, thereby promoting active, student-centred learning. We have learned that shy students who dread putting their hands up in class find it easier to engage in class discussion using the “chat” function. At my own university, students got to spend two hours talking to a former prime minister in class, and a new “virtual study abroad” program put international experience within the grasp of students whose home lives or socio-economic status would have made study abroad impossible.

Imagining the post-pandemic university

In short, COVID-19 has taught us that change to how universities operate is necessary and that it’s possible. Let’s use this historic moment to make universities more equitable, and more accessible to a broad range of learners and employees. Here are just a few ideas for long-term changes we could adopt to this end, based on what we have learned from the COVID-19 era:

In the classroom

  • Continue to offer more remote and asynchronous courses so that students in different places or on different schedules can still “attend” university;
  • Even in face-to-face classes, offer flexible tech options so that students can attend remotely, or view lectures after the fact on days when their health or personal life make in-person attendance difficult;
  • Continue to use tech to support in-class participation by students who are shy, disabled, or speak English as –an –additional language;
  • Stop assigning attendance grades. They punish learners with disabilities, and students with jobs and caring responsibilities for the days they are unable to come to class;
  • Avoid scaffolding grades in a way that makes it hard for students to do well in the course if they miss an early assignment. Thoughtfully scaffolded assignments are great at supporting student learning, but it is important to design them with tolerance for error so that students who miss something early on aren’t repeatedly punished for it;
  • Continue to provide online low- and zero-cost course materials rather than forcing students to buy expensive textbooks;

For university employees:

  • Continue to support flexible and remote working;
  • Develop performance review (PR), and promotion and tenure (P&T) standards and processes to recognize the extra labour academic staff put into more accessible teaching and learning;
  • Develop PR and P&T standards and processes that don’t penalize members for heavy caring responsibilities. Gear PR and P&T to what is possible in a 35-hour work week, rather than letting the folks who are able to work 55+ hours a week set the standard for all. Use these more equitable standards for grants and awards too!
  • Offer a range of supports to members to help reboot research programs that were stalled by the pandemic. Then, continue to use those same supports for members whose research was stalled for any reason – illness, caring responsibilities, etc.;
  • Offer conference funding for remote conference participation, not just in-person participation. Indeed, consider financially incenting remote participation over in-person attendance. This change not only supports accessibility. It also supports more sustainable research dissemination in the face of the climate crisis;
  • Continue to provide flexible, remote participation options for collegial governance bodies, town halls, convocations and campus social events;
  • Make it a priority to continue developing ideas and practices for more equitable post-pandemic universities. Consider making this a standing agenda item for department, faculty and university meetings to foreground our opportunity (and duty!) to do better.

A final caution

It is important not to be cavalier. Discussions of “disruption” in academia too often overlook the real people who are vulnerable in moments of disruption. The GI Bill and Veterans Charter made postsecondary education possible for people who had never before had access to college or university. However, in the process, they left out Black and Indigenous students.

Make no mistake: COVID-19 will leave deep scars on higher education, and on the staff and students who are already most vulnerable within the system. As we begin to imagine the post-pandemic university, we must work to ensure that the changes we make do not deepen existing inequities or create new ones.

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