Minister for Advanced Education talks COVID-era university

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White bearded cartoon professor writes “HIGHER EDUCATION” on chalk board. bluefield photos BP

Makowsky “proud” of sector

by brayden dovell, Contributor

Nearly one year ago, COVID-19 forced post-secondary education institutions to rapidly shift their instruction online. The transition, although deemed generally successful at an institutional level, has faced no shortage of scrutiny from students. Whether it be inquiry into the price and value of higher education in an online format, or concern over the loss of experiential education and internships, students have made sure their voices are heard.

In the midst of these changes, Saskatchewan also saw the appointment of a new Provincial Cabinet in November of 2020, and Gene Makowsky become the newly appointed Minister of Advanced Education. As part of his new portfolio, Minister Makowsky deals directly with the effects of the transition to online education.

In reflecting on this rapid transition, Makowsky considers it a success, but recognizes that it did come with some challenges: “There was certainly a pivot in the sector, and right across the province when COVID-19 hit. I think the institutions, the instructors, and the students did a good job in that very quick pivot… [it created] a good scenario where [students] could continue to learn.” He says he is “very proud of the sector for how they came together and were able to continue on with quality education, allowing students to not have their learning interrupted to a massive extent.” He does recognize however, “there have been some challenges, and those continue. But with the immense task that was before the sector they responded very well.”

Despite the challenges brought about by these rapid changes in the sector, enrollment across the province, and at the University of Regina, has continued to rise – enrollment in Fall 2020 was up a little more than one per cent compared to enrollment in Fall 2019. These numbers suggest that despite the hurdles associated with online learning, students still feel the long-term value of a post-secondary education outweigh the short-term difficulties presented by the current iteration of pandemic schooling.

For Makowsky, the value of a post-secondary education was never a question. He holds a bachelor’s degree in education with distinction from the University of Saskatchewan and worked briefly as a substitute teacher. Reflecting on his time as a post-secondary student, Minister Makowsky recalls: “I just wanted to continue my education […] I knew then and I know now that it certainly opens up opportunities for you. I enjoyed learning. I thought it was definitely an opportunity and a challenge.” He reflects on a moment of realization during his time as a teacher, saying, “I realized how important educating our young people is to the future of our province […] It was a positive experience for me for sure.”

Comparing his time as a student to the environment post-secondary students are faced with now, Makowsky discusses rapid digitalization in the field, but states that the underlying experience is still the same. He reminisces on waiting in line overnight to register for high demand classes, whereas now course registration is done online. “Certainly things are the same, but then there’s been some things that are of course different […] I know that the digital aspect [has changed things], but the basics are still there. Studying and trying to manage your time, and making sure you keep all those plates in the air in terms of what’s going on with your university experience.”

Changes within the field of post-secondary education are not anything new for Minister Makowsky. Even before COVID-19, post-secondary institutions saw dramatic adaptation in prioritizing digital transformation of the sector. This evolution has only been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, and he believes it will continue even as we emerge out of this pandemic era.

Discussing the benefits of remotely delivered education, Makowsky believes it creates an opportunity for post-secondary institutions to address gaps in their attendance. He describes the online format being conducive to reaching individuals otherwise unable to pursue a post-secondary education. “I think it can reach more students out there,” he says. “Those [with] different circumstances. They might be in remote locations, or they have other things on their plate whether it be family, or jobs, or whatever their circumstance may be. It may be part of the solution to be able to get them to tie into some post-secondary education.” While remote delivery can certainly be beneficial, he recognizes that, “there will obviously be a need and a want by students [to resume] face-to-face learning, but this may be an opportunity to reach more folks here in our province.”

When asked about the current challenges faced by post-secondary students, Makowsky projects a spirit of optimism. While he doesn’t comment on specific issues such as the price and value of online education, the loss of critical experiential education, or graduating during an economic recession, he stresses that the benefits of a post-secondary education still outweigh the difficulties of the pandemic: “Up economy or down economy I think there are certain advantages to being able to get a post-secondary degree.” He points to the provinces growth plan: “I think the post-secondary sector definitely can play a big part in the recovery of our province coming out of COVID […] I’m very optimistic about the future of our province in large part because of the work and workforce that we’re training right now, that will be available to our students in the future.”

Although hopeful for the future, Makowsky recognizes that students have expressed uncertainty about their own futures – many raising concerns about lost experience and the cost of online education. He highlights some of the things the province has done to combat these challenges: “Although there is a cost, it’s a pretty good investment in yourself […] We’re talking about the student loan program, which is well used here in our province. During the pandemic we were able to re-purpose some scholarship money to provide emergency assistance to students. During the recent election campaign, we brought forward an increase to the Saskatchewan Advantage Scholarship. And of course, the graduate retention program continues […] We have [also] provided significant operating grants to the institutions to help them deal with their cost.”

Makowsky doesn’t comment on any specific plans the government has to address student concerns related to online learning, but maintains that regardless of challenges faced, a post-secondary education remains a valuable experience. He concludes, “the benefits to attending a post-secondary institute are pretty well understood. Studies have shown that over your career in the workforce, if you have some post-secondary training it is a massive benefit to you individually, and of course to our province as well. It is a worthwhile endeavor in my opinion […] there is a cost, but it’s a pretty good investment in yourself.”

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