B.C. 2.0.: Postsecondary institutions grapple with some major changes

Moving classes online is one thing; a dramatic drop in international students is another.

Credit: Langara College

Moving classes online is one thing; a dramatic drop in international students is another

University and college students are used to March feeling like a dumpster fire of stress–there’s final exams to study for and anxiety about graduation (on top of the pressure to score the least-underpaid summer internship). This year, faculty and administrators had a mid-March madness of their own: the 25 post-secondary institutions in B.C. all shifted their spring semester online in one weekend. “We had to turn on a dime,” recalls Lane Trotter, president of Langara College in Vancouver.

Before the pandemic, only 5 percent of Langara’s classes were held online. Now almost all campus activities are virtual, except those that take place in select high-end labs and special classrooms. “The biggest impact is the change in pedagogy, or teaching delivery,” Trotter says.

But besides the obvious complications that come with online classes–lecturing via video, the loss of in-person interaction, potential plagiarism–postsecondary institutions have a pricier problem: international student enrolment. In the 2018-19 school year, Langara students represented 93 countries. UBC has students from 160 nations, and 27 percent of its population is international.

At University Canada West (UCW), a private university in downtown Vancouver, 90 percent of students are from abroad. “We expect overall student numbers could be down 25 to 30 percent from our spring term, and new student numbers will probably be down 50 percent or more from what we originally expected,” says UCW president Brock Dykeman. Langara decided to put off intake for any international students who weren’t already in Canada for the summer term, a move that affected about 700 people.

For Langara, at least, some of those numbers were salvaged. “We’ve actually seen an increase in our domestic enrolment, and that’s probably related to the economic cycle,” Trotter says. There’s usually an inverse relationship between the economy and enrolment, he explains: “When the economy is not doing so well, you have an increase in people attending postsecondary to get the skills and education they need to get into the labour market.” Many locals aged 18 to 24 are entering or re-entering school to upgrade their skill set, Trotter says.

The question remains how the pandemic will affect larger institutions in the back-to-school season. (Matthew Ramsey, UBC‘s media lead on COVID-19, wouldn’t speculate on fall enrolment.) UCW is a smaller school–the student population is just over 2,000–and when its steady growth came to an abrupt halt in March, Dykeman says it had to lay off some staff and preparatory program faculty.

“As a private university, we do tend to be less bureaucratic, so we can pivot more quickly and have more consistent faculty collaboration,” he says. UCW, which plans to use a blended delivery model (in-person and online), is moving to a new building with lots of outdoor spaces. Classes will operate at half capacity, and in-class time will be reduced by 50 percent.

Much of Langara’s COVID plan focuses on financial aid, given that many potential students now find themselves unemployed for the summer. The school provided about $300,000 in emergency relief funds for domestic and international students, and its on-campus food bank donated 1,000 bags of groceries to those in need. “The cost of education isn’t the issue,” Trotter says. “It’s the cost of living.”

Alongside food and housing, access to mental health support is considered an essential ingredient for students continuing their postsecondary education during COVID. UBC has created a list of online and over-the-phone resources for students and staff. Besides offering a multilingual 24/7 mental health support service, UCW has moved events online to promote engagement and well-being. Langara’s large counselling department, which gives students access to doctors, nurses and psychiatrists (now all via telehealth), has seen an increase in traffic lately. “As we’re moving forward, we need to make sure that our students are secure,” Trotter says.