Eduvation Blog

Pandemic Uncertainties & Fiscal Realities

Good morning!

A warm greeting to all our friends in Atlantic Canada, where most colleges and universities appear to have closed yesterday for a snow day. (I do appreciate the dedication of all the St Mary’s folks who nonetheless joined me yesterday!)

Instead of sending you a 4,000-word Monday newsletter (nobody deserves that!), I opted to focus on the pandemic précis yesterday and saved the CdnPSE updates, finance and travel stories for today. Another small northern university seems to be struggling a bit, while the “rich” institutions are getting richer during the pandemic. (Rather like Jeff Bezos finally made enough to retire from Amazon – to pursue galactic domination instead – while small retailers are going bankrupt left and right.)

I don’t intend to sound judgemental – I am a satisfied Amazon Prime customer and a UofT alumnus too – but the examples do underscore the challenge of this pandemic for smaller, boutique universities (or retailers). Over the past year, I’ve been working with a number of institutional leadership teams and governing boards to explore some of those implications, and potential strategies in response.

I’ll keep this issue short so I can catch up on some sleep – today’s going to be another busy day for me, with the inaugural meeting of the national small colleges CMO roundtable. Higher ed marketers have been as nimble and creative as anyone during this extraordinary year, finding new media and new voices to speak to a broad range of stakeholders. And the hard work of those who also have responsibility for media relations and/or crisis communications has been incredible, and inspiring!


Fiscal Winners & Losers

The news that Laurentian U was filing for creditor protection reverberated in headlines nationally and internationally last week. (The issue has more to do with a decade of compounding deficits than with COVID19.) But another northern institution is faced with difficult cuts to balance its budget, and one has to wonder whether Ontario might consider BC’s example, forbidding PSEs from running deficit budgets…


UNBC has shut down its Advancement office and laid off 9 employees as of Apr 1, including a VP, in an effort to comply with legislation requiring a balanced budget (currently facing a $2-$4M deficit). Advancement functions have been reallocated, and MarCom will now report directly to the president. (Sadly, reducing the team responsible for fundraising is likely to have a lasting impact on revenues.)  Prince George Citizen


The pandemic has exacerbated class distinctions among workers, students, and also institutions, with the most prestigious research institutions in Canada, the US and UK attracting more students online than ever, while more remote and obscure institutions struggle…


uToronto is anticipating a remarkably healthy fiscal year, with projected revenues of $3.8B and an estimated net income of $475M for 2020-21 – $34M more than 2019-20. UofT will also pay down >$60M in outstanding debt, its net assets will rise from $6.4B to $7.2B, and reserves of >$1B. The projections are typically conservative, as they have consistently understated actual net revenues in previous years. UofT has seen student enrolment rise 6.7% over the past 5 years. The Varsity


Travel Challenges

Travel-related controversies have continued across Canada, but one CdnPSE board member has taken a proactive approach. With reading weeks approaching, students are urged not to travel. And international students still unable to travel to Canada are starting to request deferrals…


Brandon U board of governors treasurer Kerry Auriat, who is also a columnist at the Brandon Sun, resigned last week in response to MB premier Brian Pallister’s announcement that order-in-council appointees would no longer be allowed to travel. Auriat previously wrote a column defending the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority board chair for travelling to Arizona, and says he “frequently travels.”  Winnipeg Free Press


Reading Week is next week for many Ontario PSEs, but students living in residence are encouraged not to leave campus, or they will face a 14-day quarantine upon return – recommended at Waterloo and Laurier, but mandatory at uGuelph (which has just recovered from a major COVID19 outbreak in residence).  CBC


Algoma U reports that >50% of the record 1,100 international students who confirmed for the Winter term have now requested a deferral, either because they cannot travel to Canada or because they want to wait for F2F instruction. Domestic enrolment is up at most Algoma campuses. “Investments in quality online and remote learning have allowed the university to recruit new students and retain the students we already had.”  Sault Star


Returning to Campus

Atlantic institutions are fortunate to be among the first to be able to start returning to campus, but the challenges and issues they are encountering will soon be prevalent across the country…


Memorial U staff returned to campus last week, but some are complaining to the media about the mandatory return, and the paperwork required for exceptions. MUN says it “requires employees seeking an accommodation to take an active role in the accommodation process, including providing documentation to support their request.” So far, 73 accommodation requests have been made, but only 43 have been approved. (Many are still pending.)  CBC


“You’re herding a lot of people into a small space. There’s just not a lot of consideration for the comfort of staff… They’re touting the mental health aspect of having people return to a normal routine. But it just adds so much more pressure to people’s daily routines as it is, that I don’t know if they really considered the full scope of the mental health aspects for everyone.”Anonymous MUN employee


Spring & Summer

Several more institutions have made announcements about Spring and Summer. (See my master spreadsheet for a running tally.)


McMaster U announced last week that Spring, Summer, and Intersession terms will be held virtually, “with only a few exceptions for courses that need student access to specialized equipment.” McMaster is developing scenarios to allow as much activity on campus as possible this September.  McMaster


Mount Royal U announced last week that spring/summer classes will be primarily online, with some exceptions. A decision will be made about the Fall term, hopefully by late April.  MRU


Ryerson U president Mohamed Lachemi announced last week that virtual learning and teaching and remote work will continue throughout the Spring and Summer terms. “A limited number” of programs will continue with some F2F while following PHO precautions. WFH will continue until at least Aug 13. (June convocation will also be held virtually.) For fall, PHO restrictions “will likely mean a gradual return” to campus, “prioritizing areas that would most benefit from in-person interaction.” The university is still considering a number of scenarios.  Ryerson


Western U president Alan Shepard announced last week that in-person instruction will still resume Feb 21 for some courses, and students will gradually return to residence. Spring and Summer term courses will be “mostly online,” with limited exceptions for labs, studios, and clinical placement. For Fall, Western is “making plans” to return to F2F instruction and “more of the on-campus experience we all miss.” However, he continues, “The unpredictability that comes with new COVID-19 variants and vaccine distribution plans may mean we have to pivot, again.”  UWO


“Here we are, starting off February 2021 in a provincial shutdown. We know vaccines are coming, but there is uncertainty about what life will look like over the coming months. Just as we couldn’t have predicted where we would be today, we cannot say definitively what is to come.” Alan Shepard, President, Western U




A World of Possibility

On Friday, Ryerson U dropped a 2-min video aimed at applicants in the decision phase. “A world of possibility at Ryerson U” features a “AI” narrator (who sounds like a cross between Apple’s Siri and Scarlett Johansson’s amazing – but sadly fictional – Samantha) who empathizes with the “big choice” applicants have to make. She then delivers “what I found on the web,” including a checklist of features which (naturally) Ryerson possesses. In particular, the spot highlights the benefits of Ryerson’s “Zones,” and the cuddly support of therapy dogs. (And stay tuned after the closing screen for one last voice assistant joke.)  YouTube


As always, thanks for reading!  Please let me know if you’ve heard news from your campus that reflects the impact of the pandemic, or a strategic approach that may show the way for others…

Be safe and stay warm!  See you tomorrow,


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