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Jan 30, 2021

Nobody could have predicted how 2020 would unfold. For Paul Davidson, the president of Universities Canada, last year couldn’t have had a worse start. On 8 January 2020, flight 852 of Ukraine International Airlines crashed in Tehran, killing all 176 passengers and crew, among them 63 undergraduate and graduate students, and faculty members from 18 Canadian universities.

Still reeling from that tragedy, just a few weeks later, Canada reported its first case of COVID-19 on its shores. Canadian universities were among the first to understand the COVID-19’s impact because of their close connections with places like China. They saw the impact of the virus early and how China dealt with the virus as visa applications centers and language testing centers shut down.

Universities Canada President Paul Davidson

In an interview last year with GMI Post, Davidson took stock of the year gone by and how Canada’s schools and universities adapted to major challenges brought about by the global pandemic. Looking forward, Davidson also expounds on the new normal for his country’s education sector. Universities Canada is a nongovernmental, membership-based association of private and public not-for-profit Canadian universities.

GMI Post: Given your involvement in the education sector, both in government and the private sector, what trends you have seen emerge this year?

Davidson: Canada’s universities responded really well and very quickly, moving all their undergraduate learners online in a span of 10 days. We were able to complete the winter term successfully. Campuses were depopulated very quickly out of concern for the safety of the students and faculty. University residences were repurposed to accommodate frontline healthcare workers to protect their families.

I also want to underscore how in those first few days and weeks, there was particular care and attention to how international students in Canada were being treated. Universities kept their residences open for them. They kept the meal plans going. They helped the students find work in the summer. They worked with immigration officials to extend study permits. That’s really something that Canada is proud of.

Canada lives a multicultural environment. It lives a pluralistic experim ent. We have a very large number of international students that come from a wide range of countries. Because we are such a multicultural society, sometimes we can’t even tell the international student from the Canadian student. That makes the international students very comfortable.

Perhaps most significantly, our schools enabled international students to enroll online until such time our borders are reopened. Aside from that, the time spent on online study will beconsidered when international students apply for postgraduate work permits.

That’s another feature of our system. We see international students as a real asset to Canada and our economy. Meanwhile, international students also value the chance not only to study here but also get first-hand work experience.

Our immigration rules permit international students to work while they’re studying and stay after graduation. That’s a compelling offer.

GMI Post: How have universities adapted to this new normal?

Davidson: It has been a tumultuous year for everyone and I really feel for international students and their parents who are trying to figure out what they might do next and where they might go. However, the enduring values of Canadian education persists: high quality education, safety and security, and a welcoming environment in a dynamic, progressive country.

Our multiculturalism really welcomes diversity and favors young people. Canada is a great place to be if you’re a young person.

With the pandemic, universities transformed their educational offerings to maintain their high quality and presented a variety of options. Some small liberal arts undergraduate colleges operate in-person classes. There are parts of the country where the pandemic hasn’t interrupted activity.

Then, every university in the country offers online experiences. Depending on whether health and safety conditions allow, some universities are offering more hybrid experiences, which blend synchronous and asynchronous opportunities. We understand it is a challenge for students to be out of the classroom for between 12 and 14 hours a day.

So, universities are adapting to allow students to study at a time of their choosing. Some have invested in technology like virtual reality to create an experience that is as immersive as possible.

Many schools are also aware that education is not just about courses or the time spent in front of your computer. Education is also about building communities. So, we have seen Canadian universities organize online extracurricular clubs and experiences, like work internships and co-ops.

Another underreported aspect is the participation of alumni groups, which reached out to students, both to Canadian and international. With regards to China, there are many highly successful Chinese leaders in government, business, and society who have strong connections to Canadian universities and a deep fondness for their experience in Canada. Some alumni groups have extended scholarships and emergency bursary support.

That’s evidence of the kind of community that Canadian universities develop and the sense of affiliation that alumni feel over their lifetime.

GMI Post: What are your priorities in the next 2 to 3 years?

Davidson: As we look to the future, it’s about growing the number of international students because we have the capacity to serve more. It’s also about encouraging outbound mobility so that Canadian students get more international experience. We want to be partners and not poachers of talent. We want to build talent together.

Another rapidly growing area is integrated learning in co-ops and internships, which forms part of our international development strategy. We are formulating strategy that aims to provide every student with a co-op internship as part of his undergraduate experience. That’s a new feature of Canada’s educational system. We are confident that students will find it appealing because they get a hands-on experience as part of their undergraduate studies.

We continue to push forward cooperation in international research. Through the pandemic, we’ve seen that science and investing in science are critical. The world has shortened the development of a vaccine from decades to months. But there are also all sorts of areas for research whether it’s climate change or social inequality, or see how countries can work together effectively. We share one planet.

So, we will promote the drive towards more international research in the years ahead. We have to keep investing in young people. We have to keep improving our level of knowledge and the breadth of our knowledge so that we can solve these very challenging problems.

Education in the Commonwealth 2021 was prepared for and originally printed in Forbes China magazine.

PDF of the printed report

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