January 4th, 2021 - Alex Usher
Welcome back. Refreshed? Me neither. But the show must go on.

I want to start the year by sketching out the key landmarks and themes of the next year, and by extension, what smart universities and colleges need to prepare for.

Let’s start with vaccine rollout, because pretty much everything depends on that. Things are mostly a mess at the moment: we have doses and they are not getting into arms as quickly as they should. This makes little sense – we do manage to give flu vaccines to 8-10 million people per year, so the actual jabbing process shouldn’t be a problem, but it seems to be so far. The bigger question is how fast we get doses into the country, and the estimates on this are all over the place. Goldman Sachs seems to think we’ll hit a 50% vaccination rate by May; the Alberta government’s COVID website seems to think roll-out to the general population won’t even begin until September
My view is that once we get the most vulnerable third or so of the population vaccinated, the pressure on ICUs is going to drop dramatically and spread will be largely confined to those for whom mortality rates are fairly low. At that point, COVID-19 will start to look a lot more like H1N1 – a disease took lives (about 600 or so) but which did not notably involve much in the way of gathering restrictions or social distancing. We’ll probably be masking indoors for the rest of the year, but if the Goldman Sachs prediction is right, we could be more or less back to normal by Canada Day. Problem is, if it is Alberta that is right, then there is a better than even chance that Fall 2021 is going to be online, too. So dust off all that scenario planning from the summer, when institutions had to work out when and how to make decisions about winter term: you’re going to need them for Fall 2021 (Summer 2021 is a write-off though).

Job one is being ready for the fall. But job two is working out how to keep all our boats floating through 2022, and that gets us into the political calendar. Provincial budgets are going to have to be brought in over the March-May period and frankly no one knows what they will look like. Most provinces could handle massive blow-out budget deficits for one year; I am pretty sure no one was counting on two. Unless there is a genuine blow-out rescue package from the federal government, it is unclear how we are going to avoid significant cuts that will impact in 2021-22. Which means everyone has about eight months to start thinking about how to generate more private revenue.

That in turn calls for a lot of strategic re-thinking about university operations. Alberta institutions have been dealing with this stuff for several months: everybody else needs to start thinking about Alberta-levels shifts in operational policies now.  As Ernest Rutherford is reputed to have once said: “Gentlemen, we have run out of money; it’s time to start thinking”. In that same vein, I think the next twelve months could result in some of the clearest strategic thinking in Canadian post-secondary history. Every institution will need to find ways to compete, and to collaborate, in ways that perhaps have never been contemplated before. But at the same time, these strategic re-thinks will be happening at precisely the juncture in history where institutions have shown themselves to be more flexible, more nimble, and better able to service students and drive deep collaborations and partnerships - regardless of geography - than ever before (The Maple League experiment in offering common classes across four institutions might be a harbinger here, particularly for small departments in small-to-mid-sized institutions). The pain is going to be real, but the possibilities are endless. 

The other big calendar event is going to be a federal election: hard to say when, exactly, but my guess is spring if vaccinations are going well, fall if they aren’t. Higher education has a real problem at the federal level because there are literally no political parties who believe in growth, and with no belief in growth there is essentially no reason to support university research. This is a problem: universities and colleges desperately need to work with others to re-engage the national growth narrative. But universities – especially the ones outside major cities - also need to actually re-think how they drive local economies, as I wrote late last year. We hope to be working with a few different campuses on this topic in the next little while and are pretty excited about it.

A final area to watch in this next year is diversity, equity, and inclusion. A lot of very ambitious plans have been unveiled over the last twelve months, and I would say here that these plans on the whole – particularly those dealing with Indigenous peoples and the TRC – are getting much better over time, which is good. However, this is an area where universities and colleges have often outlined broad ambitions but had difficulty in meeting them in practice. The fact that many institutions are pursuing two different equity/inclusion agendas – one on anti-Black racism and one on indigeneity – is excellent in the sense that we’re facing up to different forms of racism seriously, but I wonder if in fact senior managers will be able to give focus to both agendas simultaneously. Let’s hope so: these agendas are too important to let things fall through the cracks.

There’s a lot to juggle in all that. I can’t remember a January where everything is more in play. It’s scary, but it’s also a bit exhilarating. I feel a little bit more Calvin than usual.