Universities both on a national and global scale have been forced to adjust their priorities due to the COVID-19 pandemic and ultimately to reimagine the university experience altogether.
UBC's own pandemic response has been guided by an eight-year-old document in the process of being updated. But while the university had an existing pandemic response well before COVID-19, that plan didn’t outline how to deal with many of the unique challenges the pandemic has posed — including remote instruction and from-home staff operations.
Many of UBC's policies mirror that of universities across Canada, but UBC's approach has been particularly focused on ensuring minimal in-person campus activity this coming year.
Other schools like University of Toronto (U of T) and McGill are offering more hybrid instruction models and allowing certain in-person teaching activities throughout the fall, UBC’s social distancing guidelines mean nearly all instructional and extracurricular events will be online next year.
UBC’s pandemic plan
While many of UBC’s social distancing guidelines are a result of current health recommendations, the university’s emergency pandemic response plan wasn’t simply developed as a result of COVID-19.
Matthew Ramsey, director of university affairs at UBC Media Relations, said that the university had an existing pandemic response plan created in 2009 for influenza, which was then updated in 2012. The plan was in the process of being updated in early 2020.
When COVID-19 hit, the revision process was paused. Ramsey noted that the university hopes to return to the revision process in the coming months to reflect on the lessons learned from the COVID-19 response.
“The plan was largely followed during the response to COVID-19,” Ramsey said. “But we modified our approach and have been very nimble as we receive more information from public health and other sources and evaluate our responses.”
The plan emphasizes finding ways to continue to offer necessary instruction and services in the case of a pandemic. It highlights the rights of students and faculty to remain home if they feel unwell.
“Where appropriate, faculties should prioritize courses or programs and develop strategies for continuation of these core classes even during periods of high absenteeism,” the document reads.
It also advises departments to plan for two to three weeks of 30–50 per cent absenteeism.
What the document doesn’t outline however is how to engage in continuity planning when nearly all on-campus operations have ceased. The document also notably omits any mentions of how to conduct classes and other campus operations remotely or online.
Mirroring the rest of Canada
Much of the institutional-level response for UBC has therefore been a work in progress.
However, UBC’s response to the pandemic mirrors much of what other universities across the country have been doing.
Robert Furtado, CEO of Course Compare, a career advice firm that is tracking the fall pandemic plans of universities across the country, said that UBC’s mostly online model is not unlike what is in the works for other schools across the country.
A hybrid model, the popular choice
Per Course Compare, about 53 per cent of Canadian post-secondary institutions are opting for online classes only. Another 40 per cent are going with a hybrid model. Four per cent of schools are offering classes in-person. For British Columbia in specific, about 50 per cent of all post-secondary classes will be offered online.
U of T and the University of Alberta (U of A) are both offering hybrid models to instruction this fall.
Classes at U of T that will take place in-person are mostly graduate courses, as they typically have fewer students. Much like UBC, more than 90 per cent of undergraduate courses are online this fall. At U of A, about 300 courses will have “in person learning experiences.”
McGill University and Dalhousie University, much like UBC, are both offering an online model of instruction this fall. Courses are being offered primarily through remote/online delivery.
Tuition increases nationally
Tuition has also been a major topic of conversation throughout the pandemic. At two per cent, UBC is on the lower end of tuition increases for domestic students. However, many institutions have not implemented a tuition increase this year.
In Ontario, the provincial government put a freeze on tuition until 2021, meaning schools like the University of Waterloo, Queen’s and UofT all saw a zero percent tuition increase for domestic students this coming year.
However, U of A, Dalhousie and McGill all saw domestic tuition increases, sitting at between four and seven per cent, three per cent and 3.1 per cent, respectively.
For international students however, national trends paint a very different picture.
UBC has among the lowest average tuition increases for international students with an average three per cent increase, while many schools in Ontario have seen anywhere from a 10 to 15 per cent tuition increase for international students this year. U of T saw a 5.4 per cent tuition increase for international students.
U of A and Dalhousie also had higher international tuition increases than UBC, with UofA again seeing a four to seven per cent increase based on program and Dalhousie increasing 6.8 per cent.
McGill saw no tuition increase for international students.
Student residences remain open
Student residences in Canada have generally remained open, albeit with some significant changes to adhere to physical distancing.
UBC is continuing to offer residence at reduced capacity, with less than 50 per cent of first-year residence open for occupancy. U of T is also allowing students to live on campus this fall. All rooms have become single occupancy, and move-in days are staggered to promote social distancing.
McGill is offering student residence at a reduced capacity, notably closing their “dormitory style” upper residences for the fall.
Dalhousie and U of A student residences are also both remaining open. At Dalhousie, residence lounges are closed and dining halls are assigned based on residence building. At UofA, rooms have been assigned strategically to promote social distancing.
Notably, UBC has run into public backlash to a clause that essentially allows the university to remove students from residence in case of an outbreak.
While there are many similarities between the pandemic plans put forward by many of these universities, specific policies vary a lot from school to school.
Each university’s pandemic response must be sensitive to a range of factors, including student health and safety, Furtado said.
“There’s no one-size-fits all approach.”