Ensuring an Enriching Experience for Ontario’s University Students
Date
September 8, 2020
Topics

September marks the beginning of a new chapter for many students across the province. Ontario’s universities are excited to welcome this year’s cohort of new and returning students.

Although university life and learning will look and feel quite different than it did in the past, the excitement and anticipation that students experience this time of year still holds true.

Ontario’s universities continue to support our students—the province’s future makers.

While the disruption of student life and academics brought about by COVID-19 has led to much uncertainty amongst students and their families, who envisioned a certain kind of university experience, our institutions remain firmly committed to the health and safety of our students, faculty, and staff as we continue to deliver on our academic mission.

Whether it’s by adapting co-op education experiences online, virtual student mentoring, or developing online or hybrid courses, Ontario’s universities continue to provide students with access to the high-quality programs and services they need throughout the pandemic and beyond.

Institutions also continue to provide ways for students to maintain vital social connections with their peers, even when physically distant, with the goal to help them navigate the process and ensure a successful start to their university journey.

With new guidelines, procedures, programs, and initiatives in place that prioritize the health and safety of our students, faculty, staff, and communities, our universities will continue to ensure that the university experience remains transformational for students.

A Path Towards Life-Long Success

Amidst the uncertainties caused by the pandemic, the value of a university degree—and the skills and experiences that come with it—remains unchanged. In fact, it has never been more important.

University students are interwoven into the social and economic fabric of our province. Throughout the pandemic, we have seen them do remarkable things for their communities.

They have stepped up to organize volunteer groups dedicated to supporting health-care workers and vulnerable populations, they are helping small businesses navigate COVID-19, and they are working with professors to create new tools, testing methods, and treatments.

The commitment and impact of these students will only continue—they will be the creative entrepreneurs and innovative employees of the future who help strengthen community resilience, drive innovation, rebuild new industries, create jobs, and adapt to a rapidly evolving economy.

Ontario’s universities are working to ensure these students can continue to access the opportunities and enriching experiences that will help them become well-rounded, global citizens.

The depth of learning that students receive at our institutions will endure, as we continue to make every effort to ensure access to a high-quality postsecondary education that will equip students with the life-long skills needed to be adaptable in a global marketplace.

In fact, the transferrable skills that a university degree fosters help both new graduates and mid-career workers succeed in a rapidly changing economy. A 2019 RBC assessment found an increasing employer demand for this type of skillset, which includes critical thinking, co-ordination, social perceptiveness, active listening, and complex problem-solving skills.

These adaptable skills are critical. Whether it’s the high school graduate beginning university for the first time, the current student continuing their studies, or the mid-career worker displaced by the pandemic, it is a good time for both the traditional and non-traditional learner to leverage what a university education can offer.

Today’s universities are no longer a destination point during a single stage of life. Postsecondary education helps the modern learner become a life-long learner. From badges, micro-credentials, and upskilling and reskilling initiatives to collaborative programs and shared resource models, universities are offering a wide range of current and relevant programs, training, and certificates.

These types of short-duration programs will become increasingly important, allowing students to rapidly build on their experience and better prepare for a shifting future.

Innovative Technologies and Programs to Support Our Students

While COVID-19 may have changed how the university experience will look, Ontario’s universities remain committed to equipping our students with the tools they need to navigate the future and foster resiliency.

New technologies and innovative programs are changing the way our students learn, and they will continue to change as the impacts of the pandemic ripple throughout the sector.

Each Ontario university continues to evolve programming to support new types of learning and help future-proof Ontario’s students by preparing them for a new world of work. Through a hybrid of in-person classes and lab work, as well as quality online courses and services, institutions are finding ways to educate students through a broad mix of alternative and blended learning models.

Programs that integrate aspects that are vital to a student’s academic success, such as virtual labs, seminars, discussions, one-on-one supports, and other activities, will ensure students remain engaged and accountable.

But we know a rich university experience is about more than academics. Students also value social and cultural supports and activities—the intangible programs that enable them to forge new friendships and relationships, develop personal accountability, and become well-rounded citizens.

Moving these activities online—from high school transition programs and orientation weeks to virtual parties and other engagement activities—creates an environment that fosters connections and leads to a fully enriching experience for our province’s future leaders.

Ensuring access to postsecondary education

Ontario’s universities are making every effort to ensure that new and returning students can continue to participate in these experiences and access every opportunity that a university education provides.

To help reduce some of the challenges students face, our institutions continue to work to minimize the financial and emotional impacts caused by COVID-19. Universities have created student emergency relief funds to support those who have been unable to continue work placements and part-time employment, or face family financial challenges.

Each university is also providing continued mental health services and finding innovative ways to virtually connect with students. These resources help ensure students receive the counselling they need to support their mental health and wellness in a rapidly changing landscape. In addition, to help students who are facing challenges accessing the technology or broadband internet they need for their studies, institutions are providing laptops and other technological supports.

Connecting student learning to the workplace

While ensuring students receive the academic, social, and financial supports they need is critical, equally important is ensuring they are given the opportunities to apply their skills to real-world situations through work-integrated learning opportunities.

We know students value these experiences. In a recent Abacus Data survey, 86 per cent of current students and recent graduates in Canada said experiential learning led to an easier transition from school to a successful career.

COVID-19 has introduced many challenges to experiential learning programming, but it is also pushing the postsecondary sector to think differently about what is possible.

Many institutions are increasing flexibility on work term length, offering support with virtual interviews and providing tips to employers about working remotely with students, in order to reduce potential obstacles to hiring.

Because, not only are work-integrated learning opportunities beneficial to students, they also help their future employers. The C.D. Howe Institute recently found that nearly 60 per cent of surveyed employers in Ontario offered employment to at least one graduate who had participated in a co-op program.

Ontario’s universities are and will continue to innovate the nature of work-integrated learning and partner with employers to adapt learning models and ensure students graduate with the practical experiences that will help them start their career.

Partnering for a Better Future for Our Students

With new challenges comes great opportunity. Ontario’s universities are teaching, learning, innovating, and adapting in new and exciting ways to support our students, while prioritizing their health and safety.

We will continue to partner with government, industry, and local communities to develop new ideas to face the challenges ahead and ensure students graduate with the skills and resiliency that will help them navigate an evolving economy.

Today’s students will shape the future of our province, bringing the new ideas and fresh approaches needed to help reimagine industries, strengthen community resilience, and build a brighter future for our province and all who live here.

Our institutions remain committed to providing these future makers with access to the high-quality programs and services they need throughout the pandemic and beyond.

David Lindsay is the President and CEO of the Council of Ontario Universities (COU).