COVID-19 a challenging but uplifting time, says President Gervan Fearon

Brock University President Gervan Fearon was a guest speaker for Thursday’s Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce (GNCC) Espresso webinar series, COVID-19, colleges and universities: Education changing and adapting. The free event, hosted by GNCC CEO Mishka Balsom, also featured President of Niagara College Canada Sean Kennedy.

The event was a question and answer format, and below are Fearon’s responses to some of the questions asked.

Q: Can you provide a sense of what the past 10 weeks have looked like for you and your institution?

“We started our planning in late-January/early-February on our pandemic response team. With all the planning we had, none of us could’ve imagined the scope and scale of what’s happened. The other part of it, though, is none of us could’ve imagined how many individuals would step up and be so resilient, innovative and forward-thinking in the types of solutions we’ve brought forward and being able to pivot our 19,000 students from an in-class, in-person type platform to fully-online. It’s also been a time of hopefulness and a time that we’ve been able to ask ourselves, ‘What are some of the lessons learned through this time period that we’d like to use in the future, not only for the University, but for the business community and the competitiveness of the region?’ It’s also been a time of Niagara College and Brock moving closer together to ask ‘how can we work together and benefit the entire region.’ It’s been both a challenging period but an uplifting one as well.”

Q: Brock and Niagara College have a direct and in-direct economic impact on our region. How do you define and quantify the economic impact that COVID-19 has on your institution and therefore also on our region?

“Our operating budget is nearly $360 million. We did a study a couple years ago with a direct economic impact cost region of about $640 million. Our Brock University Students’ Union (BUSU), for example, in co-operation with the University, contributes about $4.5 million to our regional transportation. We’re engaged, as is Niagara College, with the agri-food and wine industry. Our contributions there are usually through the Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute (CCOVI). We do a lot of work as well with businesses across the region. Half of our students come from outside of the region. Family visits, the tourism footprint contributions to talent and employment across the region.”

Q: In light of the fall semester being virtual, how many less students can we expect to come to Niagara?

“Public Health is still working out some recommendations as to what gatherings might look like. Without question, we will have to have significant modifications in any gatherings that we have on campus. We recently announced a substantial amount of our course offerings will be online. That means that in September, a number of students may choose to remain at home. We may also see a shift when individuals end up being in Niagara. It may shift, for example, from September to May 2021.”

Q: How do you foresee work experiences for students in the next semester?

“One of our hallmarks at Brock is the student experience as well as experiential and co-op education, so it plays an important role. We try to have 100 per cent of our students having some experiential components to their education. In some sense, co-op education and workplace education has actually evolved with some of the evolution that’s taken place. What we’ve been doing is working with employers to make sure our students continue to get their co-op experience, but without question it’s with modification.”

Q: Is this crisis highlighting the need for stable government funding for post-secondary students? What’s the sense from your students?

“We’ve had very regular meetings with BUSU and our Graduate Students’ Association (GSA) to make sure we’re being very sensitive to student needs. We established a student emergency bursary that provided funding both to our domestic and international students. We worked with a number of our students who may not have been able to make arrangements to return home for example and opened up our residences to have that available to them along with our cafeteria. We’re also looking at how we can provide additional support to our students. That will be an ongoing event and effort. I appreciate the cost and the disruption, but choosing to go to a college or a university is one of the best life investments and return on investments that can be made. We’re working with both levels of government as well as with our students in making sure we look for avenues in addressing their financial needs.”

Q: Do post-secondary institutions generally see an increase in enrolment during recession? Will this recession be different due to the pandemic?

“Going into a recession, you generally see enrolment starting to pick up. That would say given the economic downturn at the moment, one would anticipate there being a pickup, but I don’t think we can consider the COVID-19 a normal cycle. This is more of an economic disruption. Individuals looking to retool and gain more knowledge or future employment, we will see that come forward.”

Q: Is this the end of globalization and instead focusing more on manufacturing closer to home? How will that impact the programs you’re offering?

“There is a sense of manufacturing and activities being closer to home. There will be modifications to the idea of how we meet local needs. It’s the University and the College bringing that global knowledge to support local competitiveness.”

Q: If online learning at post-secondary institutions is here to stay, what will be the competitive advantage of any institution and how will it impact future tuitions?

“Many of our students benefit substantially from face-to-face learning and direct engagements. The other side, though, is there will be a number of our students who will go through hybrid or online. There’s an opportunity to look at the strengths of the region as a new place to live and work. I hope that both institutions will be able to work with employees with how we can assist in some of the skilling and retraining those who may not be able to come to our programs during the day to get them the talent and skillsets they need.”

Q: Do you have any closing comments?

“Student connectiveness, a sense of engagement and student life on campus is a really important component to their overall university experience, as well as their success. A lot of individuals will find business partners, life partners and friends through activity on campus. We have moved a lot of that engagement to online in collaboration with BUSU and GSA, our mental health supports and registration advisement services are now all online. What we’ll be doing in the future is invite students to the Niagara region and to the University to explore and get that sense of connection to community. We view ourselves as community partners. We want our graduates to think about staying in Niagara and contributing to the vitality of the communities and businesses here.”

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