Graduation day at Walter Sisulu University in Mthatha, Eastern Cape. Online learning should be changing the entire edifice of tertiary education, but SA is not adapting. Picture: DAILY DISPATCH
Graduation day at Walter Sisulu University in Mthatha, Eastern Cape. Online learning should be changing the entire edifice of tertiary education, but SA is not adapting. Picture: DAILY DISPATCH

In the last recession a surge of Canadians went back to school. Post secondary enrolment shot up after the 2008 crisis.

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 graduates and a third of master’s degree graduates. In the US, increased enrolment was led by older adults as workers who had 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, post secondary 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.

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.

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. /Toronto, May 20