By Courtney Bachar/The Oshawa Express/LJI Reporter
Despite Ontario Tech University having to transition to an online learning system amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, all students were able to complete their winter program.
Steven Murphy, president of Ontario Tech University, says the university was able to transition in just one day to an online format for students to be able to complete the remaining three weeks of their programs.
“If we go back to that fateful evening on March 12 when we decided to transition to online, being a fairly young university, only 17 years old and the youngest in the province, it allowed us to adapt quickly,” says Murphy, noting students were able to complete their term in an emergency delivery model.
Since then, Murphy says the university has had more time to prepare for the summer session and students are doing well.
“We’re getting good feedback from our students, and good enrolment,” says Murphy, noting students who are electing to come into the summer program are well versed for online teaching because they’ve selected to continue school through the summer.
“These are our continuing students, those who have already been with us so they know what to expect, they know the quality of online instruction, and what courses they need. In some cases, they’re getting ahead, and in some cases they’re getting caught up, so the summer is going just fine,” Murphy adds.
Murphy notes something different for students in their final year was their graduation, which was done virtually due to the pandemic. As well, many of the individual faculties also held smaller celebrations for their graduating students.
In addition, Murphy says Ontario Tech University offered digital degrees.
“In addition to [students] getting their physical parchment paper, which was mailed out to them, we also gave them digital degrees which they received right away on their graduation, which serves as a credential for that degree,” says Murphy. “That went extremely well and was really well received.”
Murphy says the class of 2020 will be forever known as the “COVID-class” and while they can’t come together just yet, the university plans to host a special ceremony for the class of 2020 in the spring of 2021, before the convocation for the class of ’21.
“We thought it more fitting to plan a proper party rather than do something now,” says Murphy.
Looking forward to the fall semester in September, Murphy says when it comes to first time students, both international and domestic, there’s an interesting phenomenon that has happened amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
“People tend to gravitate towards name brands they really know when in difficult times,” he says.
Murphy says universities with really old and long reputations, such as Queen’s, Western, Waterloo and UofT, have had increases in enrolment while the rest of the province has seen a decrease of about 10 per cent.
“It’s been an interesting phenomenon.”
In response, Murphy says universities like Queen’s are choosing to take in more first year students than they normally would while also lowering admission averages.
“You can imagine when schools like Western and Queen’s start making decisions like that, the effect it has on us all,” he says, noting Ontario Tech was projecting enrolment to be down about 12 to 15 per cent, however, Murphy says enrolment is trending down about 10 per cent.
“We’re a little better than the system is doing outside of those top five universities,” he says, adding the university’s name brand recognition has really increased in both Durham Region and across the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).
Murphy notes a recent study showed the school’s name recognition amongst high school students went from 43 per cent to about 76 per cent in terms of recognition.
“That’s going to take a while to build up. It’s really a nuance story, because you’re either one of the top five universities and you’re doing just fine, or you are one of the rest of us, the other 21 universities in Ontario who are struggling,” says Murphy. “A loss of 10 per cent of your first year students is substantial.”
Due to the pandemic and moving studies online, Murphy says the university has had to lay off some staff in order to account for the loss in revenue.
“Post-secondary is hurting all across the sector,” says Murphy, noting both union and non-unionized staff were affected by the temporary layoffs.
He says the vast majority of individuals who are not on the academic side of the house have approved voluntary layoffs. In most cases, people agreed to 10 days of unpaid time off in the coming year, some more than that, and some agreed to a full layoff.
“But the vast majority of our non-academic employees that have been negatively impacted are in the 10 days or less category, or approximately five per cent of their income in a one-time only situation to help get the university through this,” he says.
Murphy says the university has been actively working to increase outreach and engagement to try and increase revenue and enrolment for the fall semester.
“We’ve doubled down on our social media presence. If you’re trying to get to teenagers, you need to be in places they’re at,” he says. “There’s a number of things we’re doing, all of them lead to either the parent or the student becoming more aware of the programs, and that goes from everything as simple as the website having a clear button of where you can apply, to very extensive social media outreach.”