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It’s never just academic

Let’s take a deep breath

The 2021 school year is still fraught with risks, but with major risks come major opportunities.


Welcome back from your holidays, everyone! At least, those of you who were actually able to take a holiday.

Last week, a colleague of mine told me that we should enjoy the quiet time we were given. I was a bit flabbergasted:

– Quiet? What quiet? It’s total insanity!

– We’re in the eye of the storm, Alex. It was crazy before, it’s going to be crazy next week, but for a few days… It’ll be crazy, but not as crazy as it could be. We just have to take a deep breath on Monday night [the evening of September 6, Labour Day] and ride out the rest of the storm.

I couldn’t describe the start of the 2021 school year any better. It’s my eighth year as a faculty and nineteenth since I started university… and I’ve never seen so many contradictions. If you’ve been on campus, you’ve probably sensed a combination of excitement, relief, anticipation and anxiety.

Change creates uncertainty

Even if we weren’t dealing with a pandemic (I can already hear you asking “hey genius, how can we think of anything else?”), it would still be a fall semester shaped by political change. The federal election campaign has focused on the pandemic and, in some places, division of responsibilities between Ottawa and the provinces, but at least there have been some promises about higher education. The New Democratic Party has pledged to do away with student loan interest at the federal level. The Liberals plan to introduce a minimum income threshold for student loan repayment, as well as funding 1,200 postsecondary mental health professionals. Absent from the speeches is any mention of research, or the possible impact of a balanced budget on transfers to the provinces. We don’t want to bring the ghosts out of the basement, but we should remember the 1990s and the Axworthy reform.

The anxiety of uncertainty

Yes, there is a pandemic. No, we don’t know for sure if the existing measures will curb the rise of the fourth wave and/or the Delta variant. A number of health questions are still unanswered; in spite of our confidence in public health experts – university-trained experts, let’s not forget – some are legitimate questions that aren’t conspiratorial nor anti-vax. Are students sufficiently immunized? Is the return to class supervised enough to ensure reasonable protection for individuals? What does “reasonable protection” mean?

Universities will have to look beyond the simple questions about health and focus on political and ethical issues. A university is where we have regular (some would say permanent) discussions on fundamental social issues. What about the freedom to attend university according to your vaccination status? Will vaccination passports be required for returning to campus?

The pandemic also eclipses other issues that aren’t going to go away; they’re hidden within the blind spots of public discourse. Some of these issues are covered by election promises, like mental health, reconciliation, and future Francophone university education in Northern Ontario (the Laurentian-Sudbury saga) and Southern Ontario (Université de l’Ontario français). Academic freedom is also addressed in an ongoing study commissioned by the government of Quebec. One of the issues under consideration is the potential for legislating on academic freedom.

All of this is commendable. But we should remember several fundamental issues within this blind spot that will continue to ripen (hopefully not “rot”) while we deal with the pandemic. These include, but aren’t limited to, mental health among university staff, tackling sexual assault on campus, the mid-term consequences of huge government deficits resulting from the pandemic, academic labour shortages, and the lingering impact of the success of distance learning on universities and potential student demand for it.

The dark side of fear

It was either that subtitle or “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

We haven’t reached the lessons learned stage. We’re still in the stages of learning and putting out fires. Unlike last fall, this year isn’t a great unknown. It’s still an unknown, but we’ve managed to find our way. With a little bit of luck and by sticking together in our communities, it’ll be the last time we return to school this way. We succeeded in 2020, there’s no reason why we can’t succeed this autumn. Many people feel there is light at the end of the tunnel. We shouldn’t give in to fear.

Before we rush headlong into the almost unknown once again, let’s take a deep breath… and hope that the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t a high-speed freight train heading toward us!

Alexandre Beaupré-Lavallée
Alexandre Beaupré-Lavallée is an assistant professor in higher education administration at the Université de Montréal's faculty of education and a regular researcher at the Laboratoire interdisciplinaire de recherche sur l'enseignement supérieur.
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