Deborah Saucier, Vancouver Island University president and vice-chancellor, was among the panelists in the Future of Post-Secondary Education discussion at the State of the Island Economic Summit on Oct. 28. (VIEA YouTube screenshot)

Deborah Saucier, Vancouver Island University president and vice-chancellor, was among the panelists in the Future of Post-Secondary Education discussion at the State of the Island Economic Summit on Oct. 28. (VIEA YouTube screenshot)

Vancouver Island’s universities challenged to ‘build community’ amid remote learning

VIU, UVic and Royal Roads University admin discuss COVID-19 impact on post-secondary education

Universities and colleges weren’t spared by COVID-19 and leaders from Vancouver Island post-secondary educational institutions talked about the challenges they’ve faced and the adjustments they’ve made.

A discussion on ‘The Future of Post-Secondary Education’ took place at the recent Vancouver Island Economic Summit, with Deborah Saucier, Vancouver Island University president, Philip Steenkamp, Royal Roads University president, Chris Horbachewski, University of Victoria vice-president of external relations, and moderator Michael Hawes, Fulbright Canada executive director, talking about the coronavirus and its impact.

Hawes said the pandemic’s implications for post-secondary education are significant and said the traditional model of in-person learning and on-campus instruction has been turned on its head.

“Its effects are far-reaching. It affects the core business model of the modern university, it affects the framework for public support, it affects the local economy and it affects how students, staff and faculty deal with their study and their work,” Hawes said. “In many ways, the issue isn’t just about delivery, it’s about the nature of the modern university and how to deal with change.”

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Saucier said VIU’s pandemic approach changed over the span of seven months. The university implemented a hybrid model, featuring both face-to-face and online learning for the fall.

“We moved more than 80 per cent of our offerings to a technology-mediated format in a week and we kept a number of things face-to-face … things like experiential learning opportunities, [practicum], but also our trades programs continued to meet face-to-face,” Saucier said. “This really required heavy lifting by the part of our staff and faculty to work with WorkSafe B.C. to ensure that everyone was able to do so safely.”

Horbachewski said the impact of the pandemic on UVic has been significant. Residences have only 40 per cent of beds filled and food service operations and recreation and athletics have also been reduced.

“We‘ve seen a significant increase in expenses,” said Horbachewski. “It costs to move students online. We had to build out new systems. We had to bolster bandwidth, we had to ensure that the supports were there for our faculty members and our researchers because at the end of the day, we wanted to make sure that we did not affect the academic quality. We have to rebuild a student experience. How do you build community when everybody is remote throughout the world right now?”

Steenkamp said post-secondary institutions have a challenge to reach out to people “who have been the primary victims” of the pandemic. He said an entire generation suffered from the 2008 recession and never really regained footing.

“We hear in this pandemic, in particular, women have been affected. We hear that indigenous people have been affected, other marginalized groups, as well, so I think it’s really incumbent on us working with our partners, in government and society generally to think about how we can reach out and serve those communities so that this isn’t … a ‘K-shaped’ recovery where some people continue to do well and others continue to do poorly,” Steenkamp said.

With some 75,000 students, 9,000 of whom are international, at five post-secondary institutions on Vancouver Island, the education sector is a vital element in the economic, social and cultural life of the Island, said Hawes.

Put into perspective, more than $40 billion flows through post-secondary institutions in Canada, creating $55 billion in economic activity, Hawes said.

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