Foresight Contributions

Providing flexible pathways for learners to support post-pandemic recovery

Denise Amyot, President and CEO, Colleges and Institutes Canada

With case counts dropping and one of the best vaccination rates in the word, Canada is finally starting to return to a state of normalcy after a long pandemic. There are many reasons to be optimistic, but we can’t deny that the impacts of this unprecedented crisis will stay with us for some time still. As we look to a post-pandemic recovery, we must make sure that displaced workers and all those whose livelihood was affected can re-enter the labour market quickly, and with the skills they need to succeed. This means colleges and institutes, and in fact all post-secondary institutions, will have a critical role to play in the months ahead.

The job market was already evolving before the pandemic, with advances in technology and the impacts of climate change pressuring traditional employment, and an aging population creating labour shortages.  COVID-19 has only compounded these disruptions, creating a new sense of urgency. In fact, according to the World Economic Forum “automation, in tandem with the COVID-19 recession, is creating a ‘double-disruption’ scenario for workers”.

It is also important to note that this pandemic has been especially hard on already vulnerable individuals whose employment situation was less stable or who, by serving in essential positions, found themselves at higher risk working on the front lines. Among the most affected were people with only a secondary-school credential, women, racialized minorities, and youth. Upskilling is going to be especially important for those segments of the population, so we must focus on removing barriers to training when planning for a post-pandemic recovery.

Given the urgent needs, it is critical that we provide flexible pathways for learners, which has always been one of the great strengths of the Canadian college and institute system. CICan members offer more than 10,000 programs including a large diversity of degrees and certificates, microcredentials, as well as part-time and accelerated program options. These short-cycle training opportunities are becoming especially popular in Canada and help support a culture of life-long learning which is by far the best way to protect ourselves from disruptive technologies, or a sudden crisis like the pandemic.

Microcredentials in particular are in growing demand across Canada, and the majority of our members now offer them either online or in person. They do remain quite varied, however, which is why our association recently launched a national framework on microcredentials, including guidelines and a common definition that is supported by all our regional counterparts across the country.

This framework defines a micro-credential as a certification of assessed competencies that is additional, alternate, complementary to, or a component of a formal qualification. It also articulates the leadership role colleges and institutes are playing in offering micro-credentials, largely in response to the needs of employers in their communities.

Thanks to these wonderful upskilling and reskilling opportunities, as well as a variety of formal credentials, including joint degrees, diplomas and certificates, Canadian and international students have access to many diverse pathways to achieve their education and career goals. Meanwhile, thousands of articulation agreements between colleges, institutes and universities facilitate transferability between post-secondary institutions.

COVID-19 has also forced us all to rethink education delivery by making online-learning the new normal. While the efforts of colleges and institutes have been nothing short of miraculous, transitioning tens of thousands of courses online, including many that traditionally involve hands-on training and work-integrated learning opportunities, and supporting students throughout the process, the current crisis has also exposed significant gaps.

Access to broadband internet remains uneven across Canada and security concerns are still a challenge for both institutions and students. Upgrading digital infrastructures should be a cornerstone of recovery efforts and recognize the importance of providing as many people as possible with the means to access learning opportunities. Again, this is a way to make post-secondary training easier to access, by multiplying the options available and allowing individual learners with as much flexibility as possible.

Many challenges remain, and we will have to be creative in the months ahead to support learners and help relaunch our national economies in a way that is both fair and sustainable. But that has always been the purpose of Canada’s colleges and institutes, and they have shown over the past year that they are stepping up to support their students, and their communities.