It is customary for the the Provost & Vice-President, Academic to provide a report to each meeting of Senate outlining plans, priorities, issues and other news. As these reports are already public through the University Secretariat Office, they will also be shared regularly through this memorandum page.
Provost’s Report to Senate – January 20, 2021
Welcome to 2021 and to the Winter term! I’m sure we can all agree that 2020 had overstayed its welcome, and I for one look forward to the day in the not-too-distant future when we no longer have to speak the words ‘pandemic’ or ‘COVID’ on a regular basis. Until then, I will continue to provide updates on the University’s response to changing restrictions both in the region and in the province.
As you know, on December 21 the Government of Ontario announced a second province-wide shutdown that began on December 26 and would last for at least 14 days in Northern Ontario and 28 days in Southern Ontario. This will have a significant impact on the beginning of the Winter term, especially for those courses that were scheduled for on-campus delivery. Under the government regulations, on-campus instruction may be provided “only if the subject matter of the teaching or instruction requires that it be taught in-person, such as clinical training or training related to a trade.” For any on-campus instruction permitted under the regulations, class sizes must be capped at 10 and physical distancing of at least two metres must be respected. Only specific programs, most of which are related to medical and para-medical disciplines are allowed classes of up to 50 students, with appropriate physical distancing. At Brock, Nursing might be the most relevant example.
While the timing of this announcement is unfortunate, requiring additional work and planning from us all over the holiday period, the possibility of a second lockdown has always been known to us. In preparation for this eventuality, all courses approved for on-campus delivery for the Winter term were asked to prepare a ‘back-up plan’ should on-campus instruction be restricted.
I know that many of us hope to return to on-campus instruction as soon as possible this winter. However, I would caution against too great a sense of optimism and note that Toronto and Peel regions both saw their lockdown orders renewed for 28 more days upon their expiry on December 21. There is no guarantee that the government will not choose to extend Niagara’s lockdown beyond January 24. Niagara’s case load at that time will likely play a significant role in determining how we move forward with the Winter term.
With the Winter term beginning, the schedule is already being finalized for Spring/Summer term offerings. While I had hoped that we would be in a position to expand our on-campus offerings significantly, the public health requirement for physical distancing will continue to limit how many students we can house in any given space. As a result, many courses, and especially larger ones, will continue to proceed online as we seek to maximize on-campus offerings where feasible.
We continue to await details from both the province and the federal government on funding that has been announced to support the development of micro-credentials to retrain and upskill workers displaced by the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. With Ottawa’s announcement coming a few weeks after that in the provincial update, our understanding is that Ontario’s funding program will essentially piggy-back on and repurpose federal funds. The focus of this funding will likely be on new programs that involve close collaboration with industry and direct relevance to specific industry sectors that have been affected by the pandemic.
Until then, there remains much work we can do and are already doing without additional funding, including the development of new offerings that repackage existing courses to new groups of potential students.
Virtual Learning Strategy
On December 11, the province announced $50 million in funding for virtual learning and educational technologies to help expand access to high-quality, market-responsive and globally competitive “Ontario-made” education. This government’s aim is to help strengthen the province’s position as a global leader in online post-secondary education. While some of this funding could support the development of micro-credentials, a number of other projects related to e-learning, virtual teaching and learning, and the enhancement of educational technologies could also be appropriate.
Discussions with the Ministry and with eCampus Ontario, which is leading the initiative, have made clear that collaborative projects with industry, colleges, and/or Indigenous institutes would be heavily favoured in the application process. Furthermore, with final applications due before the end of January, the short turn-around time also favours projects that are ‘shovel-ready’ or already in their early stages.
My office is working with relevant stakeholders, including the Deans and the Centre for Pedagogical Innovation, to coordinate the University’s submission to the competition and to ensure that the projects most likely to secure funding and most likely to advance Brock’s strategic priorities and advantages go forward to the Ministry for consideration.
Consultation on Vice-Provostial roles
With the terms of two of the Vice-Provosts (Students, and International and Strategic Partnerships) coming to an end in the next year, I will be engaging in the coming weeks in a consultation with Senate committees on the future and structure of these roles. As you know, Vice-Provostial roles can vary significantly across institutions, both in name and in responsibility. I plan to review these two positions to ensure that they are structured appropriately to meet our current and future needs. To allow for sufficient time for consultation, I will be consulting Senior Administrative Council about extending the terms of the incumbents, Drs. Lathrop and Rutherford, for one year as allowed under FHB 4.1.1. Provided that SAC supports the extension, this report will serve as my notice of those extensions. Searches for the restructured positions will be initiated as soon as possible and in accordance with FHB regulations.
Academic budgets, faculty hiring and enrolment
Academic budgets for the upcoming fiscal year were due at the beginning of January. In the last weeks since the break, I have been meeting individually with Deans to review their budgets and understand better the challenges that each Faculty is facing.
Following the approval of each Faculty budget, I will be having further conversations with each Dean to authorize requests for faculty hiring for the upcoming year. While I expect the upcoming year to be relatively lean given the impacts of COVID on the University budget, I also remain hopeful that we can make some key hires that will advance some of our signature and developing programs, will respond to some of our strategic objectives and will reinforce our standing and reputation in the sector.
Looking ahead to next year, application data suggest that the drop in enrolment Brock experienced this year could persist, with very early indications suggesting a system-wide drop in the number of student applicants at many institutions to the benefit of a small number of large institutions. The Registrar and I will continue to track the evolution of this situation and to report regularly to both the Senate and Board on this topic. Another drop in enrolment would once again have impacts on the University’s annual budget and would help solidify suspicions that COVID may have initiated a series of lean enrolment years at Brock and at many other institutions in the sector. This highlights even further the importance of aggressively pursuing strategic projects and other solutions aimed at opening the University up to new student populations and better aligning our academic offerings with student demand.
Professor Lynn Wells
Provost & Vice-President, Academic