COVID-19 Presents Compounding Challenges to Higher Education

March 12th marked the inception of University Affairs’ COVID-19 update thread. The post informed readers of coronavirus-related class suspensions at Laurentian University, but noted the Public Health Agency of Canada’s current assessment of the risk to public health was ‘low’. However, the tally of American universities suspending or cancelling classes had climbed past 200, and universities such as York issued statements informing students contingencies were in place to ensure “we can complete the academic term in the event that we are required for health and safety reasons to reduce face-to-face classroom instruction.”

Four days later, nearly every Canadian university had suspended classes. Many closure announcements were delivered with the now-fabled “two week” caveat. Remember the early days, when COVID-19 was considered an inconvenient blip on our calendar? We stocked up on supplies, downloaded Skype, Zoom or Hangouts (for some of us, all three), and got familiar with the new Top 10 feature on Netflix.

It didn’t take long, however, to realize the situation might be more of a mandatory sabbatical than an extended reading week. By the end of March, academic conferences, internship programs and convocations were cancelled. Spring and summer classes were pared back to online delivery only and withdrawal dates were extended. As the challenges of transitioning to virtual campuses mounted, universities resorted to pass/fail grading systems and placed tenures on hold.

It’s a good time to acknowledge that guilty feeling that creeps in when we commiserate over the way COVID has obliterated the meticulously crafted policies and calendars which give order and purpose to institutions of higher learning. The world is fighting to reduce mortality rates as unemployment rates skyrocket and global markets repeatedly break single-day-loss records; no-letter-grade announcements seem trivial in contrast.

We get it. To the macrocosm, the class of 2024 appears inconsequential right now. The global discourse is primarily focused on flattening the curve with mitigation of economic catastrophe holding runner-up status. But, during a crisis, we each have a post. A place to defend in order to ensure that when the threat subsides, society is able to recover by leaning on its essential pillars. Post-secondary education is one such pillar.

What Comes Next?

Historically, education has been countercyclical to the economy, so the forecast recession means post-secondary institutions will be a refuge for those facing a bleak job market. From continuing ed, to apprenticeships, diplomas to post-grad studies — the demand for education increases when GDP decreases. After the Great Recession, nearly half of Canadians who graduated in 2010 immediately re-enrolled in colleges and universities to take more courses. In the U.S., the recession sparked a 33% increase in enrolment in two-year programs. The market zigs, education zags.

If those stats and our zig-zag analogy don’t assuage your anxiety, you’re likely already aware of not one, but two elephants in the room: international students & recruitment activities. The role of these two elements in an institution’s budget cannot be understated. Departmental requirements and costs, planning, staffing, revenue projections — where do you begin when social distancing and border closures knock two critical pieces out of the puzzle? We find ourselves in a completely unique situation, a dire combination of circumstances never seen before. The worst part is, when it comes to knowing how the compound effect will impact enrolment, institutions are in a wait-and-see position.

International Students

Uncertainty surrounding the status of international student admissions hits hard — and right where it hurts. Both Canada and the U.S. have become reliant on tuition revenue from foreign students to make up for decline in government support. The weakness of this reliance was brought to light last February during diplomatic discord with China. Moody’s released a startling report which predicted three of Canada’s top universities would face serious cash-flow problems if Chinese students were called home. Talk about having all your eggs in one basket. In September, the Trudeau government announced a $150M international education strategy with a focus on diversifying the prospect pools beyond China and India, which currently account for 54% of international enrolments. If travel bans persist, or students perceive a prohibitive risk to studying abroad after the COVID crisis, this strategy may lose its teeth.
Good news: Travel ban exemptions were recently announced for international students, promising entry to those approved to study in Canada. Time will tell: What impact will the COVID crisis have on international students’ desire to study in Canada?


Never before have colleges and universities been unable to invite prospective students to recruiting events on-campus or abroad. While online techniques have been leveraged as options for some time, 100% reliance on digital means was never in the plan. Show-don’t-tell and face-to-face recruitment approaches are far more persuasive than virtual tours and Skype meetings. We all remember the moment we fell in love with our school. Whether it was being intoxicated by the grandeur or energized by the innovation — for many of us, it happened the moment we stepped on-campus. When it comes to recruiting international students, gaining awareness overseas without a physical presence leaves a significant gap in recruitment strategies.
Good news: Travel ban exemptions were recently announced for international students, promising entry to those approved to study in Canada. Time will tell: What impact will the COVID crisis have on international students’ desire to study in Canada?

If you’re like us, the wait-and-see holding pattern doesn’t fly. We prefer the hustle-while-you-wait mindset, and the possibilities afforded by the digital space have us excited (bias acknowledged –  it’s our area of expertise). We’ve also been scouring academic literature, reports, newsfeeds and census data to identify trends and we have to say, some very interesting opportunities emerged that feel tailored specifically to post-secondary education in the current global climate.

If you’re curious about how the digital early-movers have been recruiting online, or want to chat more about how to flip the script on the wait-and-see approach – shoot us an email and let’s jump on a call.

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