From global crises come silver linings – how advanced education can help chart a new course

June 06, 2020

Article published in the Vancouver Sun

Andrew Petter
President and Vice-Chancellor
Simon Fraser University

If there is a silver lining to be found in the COVID-19 pandemic, it could be that the enormous pain and dislocation caused by the worst global crisis in recent memory offers us an historic opportunity to shape a more humane and resilient future.

Of course, the opposite is also true: COVID-19 could entrench forces that have widened social disparities and blocked progress on issues such as climate change. How things turn out is up to us and the governments that act on our behalf.

History tells us that crises on the scale of this pandemic reorder social and economic priorities in ways that can lead to lasting change. Following the Great Depression and the Second World War, Western democracies fashioned modern welfare states that underpinned an economic renaissance for working people. The sense of interconnectedness generated by global catastrophe produced the political will required for countries like Canada to help build more equal and prosperous societies.

Today, we face a new set of urgent challenges, and a comparable opportunity to tackle them. The response to COVID-19 has produced a similar sense of social solidarity that could help forge a new consensus to confront the challenges of our time. Of these, inequality is the most pressing and destructive. In addition to causing poverty and hardship, grossly unequal societies experience lower economic growth and lack the sense of unity and shared purpose required to mobilize around common causes such countering COVID-19 or combatting climate change.

Canada has thus far been fortunate in this regard; our relatively high levels of social cohesion have contributed to an effective COVID-19 response. Yet the pandemic has exposed deep inequalities that speak to the frailty of our social fabric. Workers on the front lines tend to be those who have benefited least from a growing economy. Grocery store clerks, cleaners, delivery people and sanitation workers are putting their lives on the line so others can cope. And those who have borne the brunt of the economic recession are in low-wage service sectors where women, young people and new Canadians are overrepresented.

Now, as governments look ahead to economic recovery they have a unique opportunity to reduce inequality and steer Canada on a new course by mobilizing resources to achieve a much wider distribution of knowledge, skills and opportunity, and to fashion an economy less dependent on carbon. While many tools will need to be brought to bear in this enterprise, the capacities of advanced education institutions are among the most powerful and responsive, and can help support a transformative recovery in three significant ways.

First, advanced education has always been an essential driver of economic progress, nurturing the development of human capital that is necessary for innovation as well as increases to productivity and incomes. Today, with millions unemployed and many industries unlikely to fully recover, governments can marshal post-secondary education to re-skill and educate a disrupted and displaced workforce to meet the needs of a greener, more dynamic economy.

Second, as an engine of social mobility, advanced education has few peers. The post-war expansion of universities and colleges helped to create the middle class and significantly reduce Depression-era levels of inequality. With the economic fallout of COVID-19 hitting women and vulnerable communities particularly hard, advanced education can help to level the distribution of knowledge and opportunity — a necessary condition for a broad-based recovery that prevents entrenched inequality from becoming this pandemic’s destructive legacy.

And third, the capacities of advanced education institutions to generate research and promote innovation can drive the transition to a low-carbon economy. In the same way that governments have harnessed university research and innovation to counter the health and societal impacts of COVID-19, they need to look to universities to build the low-carbon industries and technologies that will be essential to achieving an environmentally sustainable future.

By harnessing the power of advanced education and research and embracing these three interconnected priorities — human capital, social equity and climate action — forward-thinking governments have a unique opportunity to forge a sustainable and lasting economic recovery. Not since the end of the Second World War have we faced such consequential choices and decisions. On the other side of the worst health crisis in living memory could await a more equitable, sustainable and democratic world. Advanced education’s potential to grow knowledge and expand opportunity holds the key to the future we choose.