Faced with the emergency brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, political leaders in Canada have largely behaved like adults. All of a sudden, petty partisan bickering has faded to the background and we have witnessed a concerted national effort towards promoting public health measures across all levels of government. There is nothing like a matter of life and death to help put things in perspective, although this has by no means been a universal response around the world.
While no one would expect this level of convergence and cooperation to last forever, we will certainly need higher than normal cross-partisan collaboration and agreement on the exceptional policy measures that will be needed in the near future to lift us all from what the IMF has called “the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.”
Conventional wisdom points to an uptick in demand for higher education during economic slowdowns. However, this time around we are facing a major global recession alongside still open-ended disruptions on several fronts, caused by the imperative to protect lives and the proper functioning of the public health system. Whether and how colleges and universities will start the next academic year in September is the subject of conversations across campuses. The implications of possible enrollment shortfalls of both domestic and international students are being sized up. We will not know for sure until the Fall semester is before us what universities and colleges will be dealing with in terms of enrollments.
Whatever the short-term pains might be, this might be only the beginning of a long road back to “normal.” Our pre-COVID-19 reality included generally stagnant public operating funding for higher education institutions, with some relevant variation across provinces. At the federal level, research funding had been convalescing since 2018 from years of anemic budgets.
One way to approach this – the more likely way – is through the good old incrementalism characteristic of higher education and science policy decisions in this country. We will deal with one budget at a time, departing from more or less the same premises we have been working with, with an eye to the fiscal situation and political context of the moment. The sector will try to protect institutions from bloodshed and make the case for the importance of higher education and research, using the same set of arguments we always deploy. The pace at which the economy reignites would condition the length, scale and nature of the pain inflicted on the research system and the budgets of colleges and universities.
An alternative might be for a major overhaul in how we manage higher education and science funding in the foreseeable future; taking the massive stimulus packages, associated deficits, and subsequent measures to ensure fiscal balance as givens. This would require a major shift in thinking and process among political leaders and policy makers. The major question would not be ¨how to make this budget not too bad”, with appropriate opportunities for credit claiming and blade avoidance. Rather, we would be looking at ensuring predictability in funding over multiple years, in a context where that will likely be threatened. We would be considering how to redress longstanding funding gaps even as competing priorities mount. We would contemplate how to change and adapt the sources and mechanisms of public funding that make the academic system work, to try to make them less vulnerable to the pressures of the scenario we will be facing.
Does that sound far-fetched? Yes it does, but who would have started 2020 predicting the exchange of compliments between Liberals and the opposition, or the Doug Ford pivot to sensible decision-making? Moreover, there are no obvious candidates for initiating such a mobilization, and all eyes will be on public health and the economy. Nonetheless, major crises provide windows of opportunity for change, and this would be as likely a driver of renewal in policy thinking and practice as we are going to get.