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When UBC announced its plan for online classes this fall, it said the extra time to prepare would produce a better product than the one quickly cobbled together in March.DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

In the last recession, a surge of Canadians went back to school.

Postsecondary enrolment shot up after the 2008 crisis. There was a jump in the number of undergraduates, and graduate enrolment also rose. The class of 2010 graduated into a brutal job market, and it responded logically: Almost half of those who finished a bachelor’s degree that spring chose to get more schooling, as did a third of college grads and a third of master’s degree grads.

In the United States, increased enrolment was led by older adults, as workers who’d lost their jobs sought new skills.

Staying in school during a recession, or going back to school, often makes sense. Downturns are generally a terrible time to start a career. For those who do land a job, the cost is felt in lower starting wages, and research shows that gap can take years to make up.

But that also makes a recession an excellent time for a person to invest in education. The opportunity cost, in the form of wages foregone by staying in school, is lower, which means the long-term returns are higher.

This recession is unique, brought on by a coronavirus pandemic that forced a sudden halt to much of economy. And unlike previous recessions, postsecondary education has itself been partly shut down.

When the pandemic hit, universities were shuttered and quickly shifted to improvised online learning. It was not ideal, like any stopgap concocted in a hurry. But a degree of reliance on virtual classrooms may be needed for some time. The University of British Columbia, McGill and some other Canadian and U.S. schools have already announced that their fall lineup of courses will be conducted largely online.

With physical campuses closed, and many expecting to remain that way this fall, education will not be the same. It is one of the many costs of this pandemic. Some students are wondering whether an education offered on a small screen is worth as much as the full university experience (and full tuition). Some are wondering whether, rather than enrolling now, they should stay out of school until it is possible to go back to traditional campus learning – which for many could mean being simultaneously out of school and out of work.

What is the reopening plan in my province? A guide

That is not ideal. For the sake of Canada’s future, governments need to encourage young adults to keep pursuing their educations, and older and unemployed adults to consider a return. That applies to colleges, to undergraduate studies and to training and apprenticeships in the trades. Education is one of the engines of future prosperity, and at a time like this it shouldn’t be slowing. It should be growing.

The pandemic presents an opportunity for educational innovation, born of necessity. For example, when UBC announced its plan for online classes this fall, it said the extra time to prepare would produce a better product than the one quickly cobbled together in March.

While college and university enrolment has risen in previous recessions, economic downturns tend to hit postsecondary budgets. With governments strapped, funding takes a hit. Alberta was already slashing education funding before the pandemic.

Across the country, however, schools are today facing their biggest hit not from governments, but from the possibility of falling tuition revenue, if students put studies on hold until they can fully return to campus, and foreign students are unable to attend, or choose not to.

Again, not an ideal outcome. Instead, governments should be encouraging and enabling higher education institutions to deliver more programs and educate more students, not fewer. Governments built campuses in decades past. Today, they can help fund the infrastructure for online learning.

While this recession is unique, there are some constants. It has hit young people and low-wage workers hardest. As a result, many young Canadians graduating this spring – with no caps or gowns, and no ceremony or celebration – will be thinking about putting the job market on hold for a while and continuing their schooling. At the same time, many older workers who have lost jobs are thinking about acquiring new and marketable skills.

That’s why this is an opportunity for governments to invest in education, helping trade schools, colleges and universities increase their output of graduates. It will pay off in long-term productivity – bettering individual lives and strengthening the future of Canada’s economy.

Globe health columnist André Picard examines the complex issues around reopening schools and businesses after the coronavirus lockdown. He says whatever happens as provinces reopen, there's also a second wave of COVID-19 illnesses looming in the fall. André was talking via Instagram Live with The Globe's Madeleine White.

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