Performance and Accountability in a Pandemic

Alex Usher:

It is a disappointing time for those of us who value accountability.  Governments across the country (outside the Atlantic, anyway) are failing us – badly – in their pandemic responses.  And yet, apparently there are no political consequences for their shameful performance and the accompanying body count.  The Ford and Legault governments, with close to 10,000 deaths between them, are rising high in the polls.  Because everyone (again, if you ignore the Atlantic provinces) is making similar pig-headed mistakes, everyone gets a pass! 

In contrast, Canadian higher education has mostly been a model in this pandemic.  Certainly if you compare our national sector performance against those of the UK and the US – countries which lend new meaning to the phrase “crossing a minefield in clown shoes” – we look extremely good, at least from the point of view of providing program continuity and keeping our community safe.   But while these are important achievements, the fact that we have managed this does not give Canadian universities and colleges a pass.  There are lots of areas where performance still can be measured, and lessons from these observations applied not just in the immediate response to the pandemic but to longer-term aspects of institutional government and management.

The first thing everyone should be doing is checking in on students to see how they view the transition to online.  It’s not so much a question of looking at “satisfaction” (which is a meaningless term); rather, it’s about gauging how students perceive institutions’ efforts to keep education going in this trying time.  How many hours of contact are they getting?  Do they see professors making real efforts to adapt to the online format, or are they just getting slide decks and told to read it themselves?  What kinds of interaction are they getting with either professors or teaching assistants?  What kinds of use are they making of library services?  Of student services? 

(Plus, you can see how many students might prefer the current set up to going back to the old one.  I continue to think there is a bigger market here than institutions may think, primarily among older students.  Not a majority or anything, but enough that a clever and nimble university might profit from focussing on them.)