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Event summary produced by The Globe and Mail Events team. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.

How has the pandemic affected global postsecondary education? The Globe and Mail, in partnership with Athabasca University, hosted a webcast on September 10 to explore the question and discuss potential solutions to keep international students engaged in Canadian educational programs through the pandemic and beyond.

Highlights from the discussion appear below the recorded webcast.

Discussion highlights:

1) Canada is responding well to the crisis

In the spring, travel to and from Canada ground to a halt, said Larissa Bezo, president and CEO of the Canadian Bureau for International Education. Canada has been nimble in its response, she noted, referring to measures by the federal government to allow international students to begin their programs from home through distance learning, and receive exemptions to enter Canada to study. The response will help Canada retain international students and attract new ones in the future, she said.

2) Distance learning can play a bigger role

Neil Fassina, president of Athabasca University in Alberta said international students are an important source of new immigrants, skills and talent for Canada. He said bricks-and-mortar postsecondary institutions can’t keep pace with increasing numbers of international students aiming to participate in Canadian postsecondary programs so virtual learning is key to growth. He suggested foreign students be permitted to complete their full Canadian postsecondary programs through distance learning and still be eligible to apply for post-study work permits in Canada.

3) Virtual tools enable work-integrated learning

Educators and businesses can use technology to provide international students with internships and work co-ops, even if they can’t travel to Canada. Kristine Remedios, Toronto-based chief inclusion and social impact officer with KPMG Canada said her organization brings in hundreds of students on an annual basis to participate in internships and co-ops. When the pandemic hit, KPMG was able to rapidly pivot and provide effective programs online through Zoom calls, virtual assignments and smaller-group discussions.

4) Cultural immersion is critical

Foreign students enrolling in postsecondary programs are often just as interested in getting to know Canadian business and cultural norms as they are in an education, said Asha Kanwar, president and CEO of the Commonwealth of Learning, an inter-governmental organization in Vancouver focused on global learning. As postsecondary institutions and businesses expand their virtual programs, they should build in opportunities for students to learn about Canadian society and business culture, she said.

5) Education is a global opportunity for Canada

Before the pandemic, postsecondary institutions focused mainly on place-based learning, bringing international students into the country as an important source of tuition revenue, said John Stackhouse, senior vice-president, office of the CEO with RBC in Toronto. Now is the time to shape a deliberate national strategy, recognizing the importance of international students to Canada’s future prosperity. He said Canada has the potential to be the global education leader, especially as we move deeper into the knowledge economy. The sector would benefit from a shared digital platform to allow our institutions to present the best of Canadian postsecondary education to the world, he added, referring to a new Canada U concept in development at RBC.

View the full webcast above

Audience questions

Due to a technical issue during the webcast, audience questions were not visible to the discussion moderator. Below are a few questions we received from attendees and answers collected from panelists.

Q. How will postsecondary institutions address the inequalities brought to light by the pandemic?

A. One of the major issues that have arisen during the pandemic is access to technology. Going online is not a universal solution...Even for online courses, alternative versions in print and other formats should be made available. Data costs need to be affordable…Many developing country institutions have made extensive use of educational TV and mobile devices during this pandemic. Another way to address the issue of inequality is to develop policies and practices that target the remotest and the most marginalized. - Asha Kanwar, president and CEO of the Commonwealth of Learning

A. Our response to the global pandemic has highlighted a number of inequities. Some, like systemic racism and the urban versus rural divide when it comes to access to learning have become amplified. Others, such as domestic violence and disparities in technology have become more apparent as we all spend more time working from home. As institutions of higher education, we need to provide the voice and the action to dismantle those social, economic, and cultural divides within our society. This is not to suggest that we will be able to address all disparities on our own. Rather, it is about a system coming together to dismantle them together. - Neil Fassina, president, Athabasca University

Q. How do you awaken this opportunity of a reset in the minds of Canadian postsecondary leadership, who are primarily driven by status quo risk aversion?

A. Responding to the global pandemic has forced many in leadership to make what have traditionally been seen as risky decisions in order to mitigate the health risks to their students and team members. While some of these decisions may have had less than ideal outcomes, many of them turned out very well. Leadership should reflect on their decisions over the last six months and reconsider the potential benefits of taking an additional risk or two provided they benefit our learners and our communities. Doing so, they will gain the confidence to know that even if something goes wrong, we can always adapt and improve. - Neil Fassina, president, Athabasca University

Q. How is the idea of a Canada U different from MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) which many Canadian institutions are committed to already? What is the business case for institutions to be involved in Canada U?

A. The idea of Canada U is to reach more international students in more (and underserviced) markets. Current MOOC involvement tends to complement/supplement current student learning. This model gives them an ownership stake in the Canada U MOOC. It also provides bolder marketing for Canadian education in a more competitive global market. Contributing to Canada U allows universities to reap lasting benefits from the major investments currently being made in online learning (both in tech and delivery); it lets allows them to leverage their brand and awareness to more international students. If successful, it should increase their number of foreign students for upper-year studies (and associated higher tuition); and, it lets them do more together in this space than could do alone. - John Stackhouse, Senior Vice-President, Office of the CEO, RBC

Q. Is there a backup plan at universities if internationalization is slowed down by the resistance to globalization?

A. Universities need to diversify their business models to ensure they are able to deal with the negative impacts of resistance to globalization. Reliance solely on the revenues generated by incoming foreign students may not work in the future. Institutions need to take a much more proactive approach to establishing their presence in other countries and strengthening national and international partnerships. Branch campuses, twinning arrangements and hybrid provision can mitigate the challenge. India and China have been the top sending countries to Canada. This could change for various reasons including new national policies, enhanced quality of local institutions and changes in geo-political conditions. Canadian institutions could look at new countries and new constituencies for both sending and receiving students. - Asha Kanwar, president and CEO of the Commonwealth of Learning