• Around the world, university students have had to switch to online learning.
  • Canadian professor Suzanne Fortier believes there are pros and cons to this situation.
  • Although it has reduced in-person meetings, the pandemic is also creating resilience, she says in an interview with the World Economic Forum.

While much has been written about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on schools and pupils, university students – on the cusp of their adult life and future careers – have also had their education upended.

Lectures, seminars and tutorials have been paused, restarted, paused and cancelled over the past year, in many parts of the world.

For all that, there are reasons to be positive about the future of the university sector and how students could emerge from this challenging period in a stronger-than-anticipated position.

That’s the view of Suzanne Fortier, the Principal and Vice-Chancellor of McGill University in Montreal, Canada and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Professor Fortier has also been appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada, an officer of France’s National Order of Merit, and was named a Specially Elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 2015.

She spoke to the World Economic Forum – where she currently serves as Chair of the Global University Leaders Forum – about how the sector has been affected by the pandemic and why there are still good reasons to be optimistic about students’ futures.

Suzanne Fortier, Principal and Vice-Chancellor, McGill University, Canada speaking during the Session: Jobs and the Fourth Industrial Revolution at the Annual Meeting 2017 of the World Economic Forum in Davos, January 19, 2017
Fortier has previously appeared at Davos.
Image: World Economic Forum/Sandra Blaser

What impact has the pandemic had on your university, as well as on the university sector more generally?

We have a lot of learners who are at different stages of their academic and career journeys. Those newer students, who had come to us recently and were just starting their experience of university, are really missing the dynamic nature of life on campus.

But those who come to us for upskilling and reskilling, typically people who are already in the workforce, have found many advantages in the flexibility that we now offer. So that’s been a positive impact. A large part of that is because of the tools and technology we can use to deliver remote learning and support online collaborations.

Related to that is another positive impact. And that’s the extent to which researchers across disciplines around the world have been able to work together and really learn about this virus, its impact and how to address it.

What are the downsides for those students who are missing out on the face-to-face aspect of university life?

It is difficult when you feel you don’t belong to a community. For those who just joined and now have that sense of not belonging, it’s a challenge. And think about all the chance encounters that you might have within that community – meetings, conversations, discoveries that weren’t planned but just happen.

You meet friends, you meet people who come to campus to lecture or get involved in all sorts of activities. And that is what a lot of students, of course, want to have as part of their university experience. It is a very enriching part of their university experience and they’re missing out on that.

To counter that, we are trying to reproduce some of this online – all of us, all universities. But it isn’t quite the same. I think we all know now, after 10 months of this, that it doesn’t completely make up for the in-person connections that we so enjoy.

Do you think the pandemic will have a long-term impact on universities?

We’ve learned a lot, about our resilience and our adaptability. And we’ve learned that we can use so many new ways of bringing people into our learning environment. Even students on campus, I’m convinced, will want to take some of their classes in remote ways, to allow them to manage their time better, so they can take part in community projects or internships.

We’ve also learned that we can be so much more accessible to people all over the world, no matter what their situation might be. Many people have constraints that mean they cannot physically come to our campuses. Now, we’ll be able to bring them in remotely.

I think all of these factors will have a cultural impact on us. But I think we’ll be better equipped to fulfil our role as an engine of social inclusion – and that is something to look towards. It will mean collaborations to create more accessibility, to promote social inclusion, to bring people into our learning environments that could not otherwise be there.

What characteristics do you think will distinguish ‘the COVID cohort’?

It’s important to first acknowledge that it has been difficult for many students. But I think they’ll develop greater confidence in their ability to face future problems and crises, because they have faced up to a major, major one.

Along with that confidence, I think they will also learn a greater sense of humility. They have experience that there are things we cannot always do just by ourselves, and that there are things beyond our immediate control.

This cohort has learned, first-hand, the importance of being part of a community, that sharing and caring really matter.

And of course, they will have extraordinarily fine-tuned skills in working digitally, which is very important.

But I also think this generation will be a little more aware that when you use digital communication tools, and you are not speaking to someone in person, it may be difficult at times to convey more subtle messages. That’s an important social skill for them to learn.