Fostering Inclusive Spaces at Ontario’s Universities

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Fostering Inclusive Spaces at Ontario’s Universities

Students wearing masks in university auditorium

September is an exciting time for post-secondary students across Ontario as they begin the next chapter of their lives or continue their academic journey.

The past 18 months have been, without a doubt, difficult for individuals and families throughout the province, including university students, as they navigated the unprecedented challenges brought about by COVID-19.

With a firm commitment to the health and safety of our students, all Ontario universities have adopted strong and comprehensive vaccinations policies and continue to work with public health units and the provincial government in our reopening strategies.

We are looking forward to welcoming new and returning students to our campuses this month, and ensuring each student enjoys a safe and enriching experience during their time at our universities.

But we know barriers still exist for many – both in accessing a high-quality post-secondary education, as well as navigating the higher education space.

As partners in this space, Ontario’s universities have an active role to play, and a responsibility to uphold and ensure that our campus communities are safe and inclusive for all students.

To help address the systemic and structural challenges students face, universities are engaging with campus and local communities and have developed action plans aimed at redressing the inequities that exist within the sector today.

These plans include developing initiatives that both increase access to a university education, as well as on-campus supports for students who have been underrepresented in the sector.

Through strategic planning, universities have worked with students, faculty, and staff, as well as external community partners to gain insights into a range of topics, such as in-class participation opportunities, retention, curricular content and design and research supervision and mentoring requests, in order to ensure meaningful action towards fully inclusive communities.

In addition, with representation from each university at the table, Ontario’s universities recently created a sector-wide reference group aimed at advancing initiatives to tackle inequitable realities and outcomes. Universities will also be working with other sector stakeholders, such as colleges and government, to advance these initiatives and improve outcomes across the higher education sector.

But we know there is still work to be done to foster inclusive post-secondary campuses across Ontario – work that is essential for the social and emotional well-being of all students.

Ontario’s universities remain steadfast in their commitment to partner with student groups, government, and across the higher education sector to find ways to further strengthen efforts towards inclusive and diverse campuses by:

  • Ensuring access to post-secondary education
  • Creating inclusive spaces for students on campus

Together, universities will continue to work with students, educators, administrators, and government to identify and eliminate disproportionate and disparate negative outcomes around access and on-campus supports in order to create safer, more welcoming spaces for all of our student populations.

Ensuring Access to Post-Secondary Education

Post-secondary students are Ontario’s future makers – the future globalized citizens, creative entrepreneurs, and innovative employees who will imagine new societies, rebuild industries, and make positive impacts on the social and economic fabric of their communities.

That’s why Ontario’s universities are working to ensure a university education is accessible for every willing and qualified student and learner, particularly those from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

With this commitment in mind, universities currently provide more than $1.1 billion in scholarships, bursaries, and grants, according to financial statements prepared by the Council of Ontario Financial Officers (COFO), to help ensure those in the greatest financial need are receiving support. Even as provincial operating grants on a weighted-student basis have declined by 21 per cent since 2006-07, based on an analysis of Ministry grants conducted by COFO, universities are prioritizing access to post-secondary and will continue to increase financial supports for students.

To fully support traditional and non-traditional learners across Ontario, the province needs to do more to increase post-secondary participation rates in higher education, including skill trades and apprenticeships, as 30 per cent of Ontarians currently do not pursue any form of higher education, according to the General Social Survey (2016): Canadians at Work and Home, prepared by Statistics Canada.

Ontario’s universities will continue to engage with student groups through open dialogue and feedback to gain a deeper understanding of what is needed to reach willing and qualified students who face barriers in accessing a post-secondary education.

Because, a fulfilling post-secondary experience – one that integrates both academics and the more intangible social and cultural supports – can provide students with a solid foundation for the next stages of their life’s journey. It can support students as they navigate the social, economic, and technological change that will only continue to accelerate.

At post-secondary, students forge new friendships and relationships, develop personal accountability, and become well-rounded global citizens. They are also provided with economic opportunity – a space where students can develop critical transferrable and adaptable skills and knowledge that will allow them to enter a rapidly changing landscape, equipped with the tools they need to adapt and thrive.

In fact, a recent McKinsey survey found participants with a university degree had higher than average proficiency scores across 56 distinct elements of talent, suggesting those with higher levels of education are better prepared for changes in the workplace.[1]

Data shows growth in jobs that typically require a university education is projected to exceed the number of university graduates over the next decade, with the federal government estimating a surplus of 75,000 openings, compared to graduates, requiring university education by 2028, according to the Canadian Occupational Projection System (COPS) for 2019-2028.[2]

We will continue to work with government and other stakeholders in colleges, skilled trades, and apprenticeships to help increase participation rates across the sector in order to help boost the social and economic well-being of all Ontarians.

Creating Inclusive Spaces for Students

While access to a high-quality post-secondary education is critical in today’s changing social and economic landscape, Ontario’s universities recognize that barriers and inequities extend beyond access.

Fostering safe and inclusive communities while students are on campus remains a priority for universities. Universities want students to see themselves represented when they walk through our campuses, feel a sense of belonging, and know they are supported throughout their time at one of Ontario’s universities.

Initiatives that foster inclusivity encourage students of all backgrounds to attend and continue to pursue their studies at higher education institutions.

Through measures to dismantle anti-Black racism, taking critical steps towards advancing truth and reconciliation, creating accessible campuses, and celebrating global communities, universities remain committed to fostering inclusive and diverse campuses.

While some of these initiatives are outlined below, we know work still needs to be done to build these spaces.

Ontario’s universities will continue to partner across the sector and with student groups to do the work that is needed to help ensure culturally sensitive supports and spaces exist on campus where all students can gather and feel comfortable.

Providing Culturally Sensitive Supports:

From addressing disproportionately inequitable outcomes within various programs, particularly STEM and medicine, to implementing inter-cultural training, mentorship programs, all-gender residences, and women’s campus safety initiatives, Ontario’s universities will continue to respond to the need for more programming that reaches all students.

In addition, through training and research initiatives, universities are also supporting federal granting council efforts to advance equity, diversity, and inclusion within the research sector.

Not only will these initiatives support students’ social and emotional well-being, but they will increase a diversity of thought, ideas, and experiences – ultimately enriching university campuses.

In one recent example from earlier this year, universities and colleges across Canada came together to discuss a national charter that focuses on taking additional measures to dismantle anti-Black racism and foster Black inclusion within the post-secondary sector. The Scarborough National Charter on Anti-Black Racism and Black Inclusion in Canadian Higher Education outlines a series of principles, commitments to action, and accountability measures to guide Canadian universities and colleges.

More than 3,000 members of the higher education community – and more than 60 partner institutions across Canada – came together for anti-Black racism and Black inclusion.

Advancing Truth and Reconciliation:

With a shared commitment towards advancing reconciliation, Ontario’s universities continue to work to better support Indigenous voices and peoples in university environments across the province.

Each university is working with Indigenous communities to ensure Indigenous students encounter a welcoming and supportive environment on campus. In addition, each university is committed to incorporating Indigenous histories, culture, traditions, and culturally appropriate supports, as well as meeting the specific targets laid out for educators as part of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee’s (TRC) recommendations.

From inclusion to fundamental transformation, some of this work includes increasing access to Indigenous students, faculty, and staff in university settings; offering support programs for students; bringing cultural elements into the university space, including practices such as smudging and events such as powwows that are facilitated by Indigenous student groups and faculty; and adjusting aspects of university structures and spaces in order to more fully include Indigenous peoples and cultural practices.

Many of these initiatives were made possible through the significant contribution and leadership of members of the Indigenous community, including faculty members. Their critical work has enabled universities and Indigenous community members to work in partnership, bringing culturally appropriate supports for students, as well as Indigenous histories, culture, knowledge and ways of knowing on campuses throughout Ontario.

Developing Inclusive Design:

A critical component to instilling a sense of safety on campus is creating accessible campuses that students of all abilities can navigate.

Accessible Campus is one example of a sector-wide resource for university educators and administrators to find information about accessible teaching practices in order to develop accessible curriculums, co-curricular activities, and spaces.

In addition, to further instill a sense of inclusivity on Ontario campuses, the Innovative Designs for Accessibility (IDeA) student competition, which started at an Ontario university and now involves universities across Canada, challenges students to develop innovative, cost-effective, and practical solutions to barriers for people with disabilities.

The program helps contribute to a culture of accessibility; motivates students to think about accessibility issues; and develops cost-effective, practical, and innovative concepts, programs, initiatives or designs that address everyday accessibility issues.

Beyond these sector-wide resources, individual universities are implementing their own programs and initiatives as well, which include an Inclusive Design Guide that offers tools when designing physical products, services, and built environments, as well as installing phone apps to help visually impaired students navigate campus.

Fostering Global Communities:

International students enrich university campuses, and help build a multicultural student body that becomes a microcosm of a globalized world. These students bring fresh perspectives to our campuses and communities.

In fact, nearly 94,000 international students enrolled at Ontario’s universities in the 2020-21 academic year, according to Ontario’s Universities’ enrolment data prepared by Statistics Canada.

Recognizing the unique challenges these students faced, and continue to face, due to COVID-19, universities worked collaboratively with local health officials to become Designated Learning Institutions – implementing rigorous health and safety measures that ensured the safe arrival of all students arriving from outside of Canada.

Universities are also offering a wide range of cultural supports, such as one-on-one personal development appointments, peer support and events, as well as an app that provides students with up-to-date information, to ensure international students and students from immigrant and minority communities feel safe and welcomed while on campus.

Partnering for a Better Future

It is only by improving the inequities that exist in accessing post-secondary education, and within the post-secondary space, that we can foster fully inclusive and welcoming campus communities – communities that encourage every willing and qualified student to pursue their studies.

Ensuring each student enjoys positive experiences and opportunities to grow, develop connections, and thrive while on campus remains a priority for Ontario’s universities.

Universities will continue to work together with government, sector partners, and student groups to instill a sense of safety, inclusivity, and equity on campus, while ensuring every willing and qualified Ontarian has access to a high-quality post-secondary education.

Because, this important work will extend beyond university walls, contributing to a society that is ultimately more welcoming and inclusive – the very factors that will benefit all Ontarians and enable our province to thrive as we rebuild from the pandemic.

Together, we can create a better future for our students, communities and province.

Steve Orsini
President and CEO
Council of Ontario Universities

This article is featured in the latest edition of the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance magazine, Educated Solutions.

[1] Marco Dondi, Julia Klier, Frédéric Panier, and Jörg Schubert, “Defining the skills citizens will need in the future world of work,” McKinsey and Company, June 25, 2021,

[2] Government of Canada, “Canadian Occupational Projection System (COPS),”;jsessionid=MiFJ0t6x7Kcj0ZpvoGMBVF-3X5h_CjsutJpO_uajBJDNc3mZ8Aoo!57767091

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