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Vivek Goel, president and vice-chancellor of the University of Waterloo.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Vivek Goel is the president and vice-chancellor of the University of Waterloo.

With the rapid pace of vaccination and the decline in new COVID cases, barring a surge in variants, we can anticipate a small measure of normalcy by this fall. For universities, this will mean a gradual and safe return to campus.

However, a complete return to what has long been considered “normal” would represent a failure for our campuses and our broader society. The pandemic has made clear that there are many ways in which we can be innovative and flexible in our teaching. We have also seen the importance of investments in fundamental research capacity which, for example, led to the development of mRNA vaccines. We have also witnessed the value of scholars engaging in interdisciplinary and applied research in partnerships locally and globally.

The pandemic has also highlighted the significant issues we continue to face as a result of issues such as historical inequities in society, the effects of globalization and the rise of populism and nationalism.

Higher education is facing a generational opportunity to address these challenges, to seize upon the trends that were already under way before the pandemic, and to breathe fresh relevance into the postsecondary experience in a world where social, technological and economic disruptions have become commonplace.

In short, now is the time to imagine the postsecondary education and research of the future – not just to protect higher education for the sector’s sake, but to cement a foundation upon which each segment of our society and economy can build for generations to come.

In a world undergoing accelerated shifts in the work force – where few sectors or career pathways are immune to technological change – it is increasingly apparent a university education should not necessarily end after four or five years. A successful postpandemic university is one that changes and evolves with a student’s career and lifetime.

The necessity is clear: A McKinsey report estimated as many as 375 million workers would have to change jobs or learn new skills by the end of this decade because of advances in automation and artificial intelligence. That report was in 2017, before the pandemic brought about the additional challenges of changing how and where we work, let alone the out-of-nowhere birth of entirely new careers and subsectors.

The opportunity for universities to capitalize on centuries of expertise in delivering education, then, is also clear. But what used to be a competition among institutes of higher learning now has new entrants that are creating their own programs to ensure their work forces have the skills they need.

This dynamic is challenging universities to forge new learning models that address the needs of workers and leaders, in order to support the economic recovery of Canada and the world, and to capitalize upon the knowledge and research that have made our institutions so valuable throughout history.

There is room for all kinds of learning. But in the face of the pandemic, as researchers across disciplines and geographies galvanized around the extraordinary threat of COVID-19, we are reminded that what universities bring to the world is worth fighting for.

A successful postpandemic university ensures our brightest minds get the same chance to innovate, to lead and to fight future global battles. That starts with ensuring every member of our community feels represented and empowered, and by acknowledging that racism exists at our institutions of higher learning.

For these institutions and the communities they serve, the outbreak of COVID-19 has made the important work of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, and of more aggressively fighting resurgent racism against Black and Asian people at an institutional level, all the more urgent.

What many are imagining as a “great reset,” then, is a chance for universities to rethink how they fit into their communities – and how those communities can play a role in shaping the future of their institutions.

As the world reopens, against a backdrop of accelerated change and exacerbated inequities, universities should grasp this once-in-a-century chance to reset.

A successful postpandemic university will be one that sees this moment for what it is: a time to seize technological advances to build on centuries of expertise; to use these technologies as a tool to break down barriers to access; and to understand how these challenges are connected.

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