Usher sobre planificación de escenarios para universidades (el caso de Canadá)
Abril 2, 2020
March 30th, 2020 – Alex Usher
For the last three weeks, life on university and college campuses has all been about doing what is needed to save the semester and move to remote learning/remote working format. I get the sense that this is the week when everyone’s attention is going to shift to “omg, what do we do now?” The answer to that question will vary, of course, but if there is just one piece of advice I could give everyone, it is that the absolute worst thing any institution could do right now is centre its planning around a re-opening on a certain specific date. This is a fool’s errand, because there’s a high degree of uncertainty about what that date will be. Rather, the correct thing to do right now is to engage in some scenario planning.
Now, I know scenario planning might sound too abstract to be a priority in the middle of a crisis, but hear me out. We’re in unknown territory for an unknown amount of time, and so the best thing to do is to look at a range of possible outcomes, work backwards from those to see which kinds of activities might have the most salience over the greatest number of outcomes, and focus on those.
The most important element in scenario planning is time: time until the pandemic is under control in Canada and when schools can re-open (the latter is likely to lag the former: schools in Hubei are still closed) and time until the global pandemic is under control. Different answers to these two questions may result in very different kinds of answers around international student enrolment, which in the short term is the largest threat to institutional finances.
For instance, some people are predicting big crashes in international student enrolment, and that’s almost certainly true if institutions remain closed for face-to-face in the fall (n.b. – opening probably doesn’t need to be September: people would be ok with a compressed semester in the fall, if courses got under way before Thanksgiving). But it’s easy to imagine other scenarios where Canadian institutions get a ton of new international students. Imagine that Canada has beaten the pandemic by August and the US has not, which on present trends is not that much of a stretch: what do you think will happen to international applications then? We could, in fact, be in the mother of all international student bonanzas.
But such good fortune might only create a whole new set of questions for institutions. If a flood of applications came late (say, if the all-clear were only given in late July), would you let in international students in any case? From all countries or just the ones that have beaten the virus? What would quarantine arrangements look like for a couple of hundred thousand students all arriving in the same week? Etc etc.
The point here is not that one scenario is more likely than the other. I have literally no idea when schools will re-open and neither does anyone else. The point is that institutions need to be thinking about how to plan for both scenarios simultaneously, not just planning for a single re-start date.
The main axis for scenario planning is time: a September re-open for face-to-face instruction is massively different than a January re-open (and to be honest I’m not sure we can rule out a Spring 2021 date). But there are a couple of other areas that need to be taken into account, as well. One is regulatory/fiscal change. Much will depend on what health authorities and governments might allow as the virus recedes. Will institutions be allowed to maintain courses for more than 50 students? Will cafeterias be allowed to re-open? What about residences? If so, under what conditions? There are a range of possibilities here for which institutions need to plan.
Then there are fiscal challenges. This is more for the medium term that the short-term, because governments aren’t going to make new cuts while the economy is in hibernation (although, as we see in Alberta, we should not expect governments to abandon cuts they have already announced). But once this is over, we are going to need to reckon with how governments will get rid of the massive amounts of debt they will take on. At some point, cuts are going to be made, and the nature and scope are going to depend somewhat on which level of government ends up taking the brunt of new spending. If it’s the provinces, then you need to model cuts to operating grants. If it’s the feds, expect everything other than medical research to take a hit. At the moment, the answer to this question isn’t at all clear: but again, planning for different kinds of outcomes here is important.
Getting towards the far end of scenario planning is “behavioural change” among students. Might we see a major shift in student interest towards health care programs (almost certainly)? Might online instruction be normalized and hence expanded (probably not at the undergraduate level but maybe grad programs)? Etc. etc. This stuff is all pretty speculative, but it’s worth keeping an eye on for the medium-term. In the short term, what everyone needs to monitor is “what behavioural changes will an employment-less summer cause?” We simply don’t know, and in fairness, governments haven’t yet worked out how student aid programs will respond, or how the Canada Emergency Response Benefit is going to be integrated into student aid calculations, both of which may alter that response a lot.
As you can see, there are a large number of imponderables at work here, for the medium-term as well as the short-term. And institutions need to be making sure that the types of planning they are making for the 6-month horizon is being done with an eye to the 12-month and 24-month horizon as well. Working through them requires care and straight thinking.
This isn’t a plea to analyse possible scenarios to death. Paralysis by analysis is not something anyone needs right now. But the key thing is for every institution to get a sense of the main scenarios and ask themselves the following three questions:
  1. What actions can we take that would do the most to minimize harm across all scenarios?
  2. Across the range of scenarios, what actions give us the greatest advantage across the greatest number of scenarios?
  3. Given the answers to 1 and 2, are there areas where responses to short-term scenarios materially affect answers to longer-term scenarios in a significant way?
I know everyone is dead tired and overloaded from the stress of the last three weeks. But if it’s at all possible over the next couple of weeks to have this discussion – not just at the level of senior management but within every unit as well – it will be time well spent, with significant dividends in the months ahead.
Stay safe everyone.


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