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Higher education, COVID-19, complex intergovernmental problem, wicked problem, emergency management, Ontario, Canada


This paper examines policy responses in higher education in the months of March and April 2020 during the rapid unfolding of the COVID-19 pandemic. The purpose is to map responses and compare levels of coordination between three actors—the Canadian federal government, the Ontario provincial government, and Ontario’s publicly funded colleges and universities—and to consider the policy implications of these initial responses for higher education’s future recovery from the pandemic. Conceptualizing COVID-19 as both a wicked problem and, in the Canadian context, a complex intergovernmental problem, the paper draws on over 200 data points from public announcements made by these three actors. It uses an emergency management framework to present a chronological comparison of actors’ actions during the response and mitigation phases focusing on four areas: academic mobility, teaching and learning, research initiatives, and student support. Actions to support higher education were largely dispersed and uncoordinated in the two key months of March and April 2020. Colleges and universities were proactive in restricting academic mobility, adapting teaching and learning, and providing student support. There was some alignment with the federal government’s responses, although federal announcements focused more on research initiatives and, latterly, student support. The Ontario government did not appear to play a significant role in shaping the initial higher education responses to the pandemic. Despite the disconnect between responses, we argue that all three actors will play an equally critical role in the future recovery and necessary rethinking of the functions and purpose of higher education.


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Policy Design and Practice

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Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License.

Original Publication Citation

El Masri, A. & Sabzalieva, E. (2020). Dealing with disruption, rethinking recovery: Policy responses to the COVID-19 pandemic in higher education, Policy Design and Practice, DOI: 10.1080/25741292.2020.1813359


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