The university enrolment dilemma

TORONTO (CUP) — Enrolment rates are expected to drop off in Canada and unless universities find a way to fill the gap, there may be a lot more empty seats in class.

“Around about now we’re at the maximum capacity in post-secondary enrolments, and over the next two, three, four years the number of enrolments will start to decline throughout the system,” said University of Toronto economics professor and author of Boom Bust and Echo David Foot.

While many universities are looking to expand their campuses and programs, the idea of universities dealing with maxed-out capacity comes from the high amount of children that were born out of the Baby Boom generation.

Also known as Generation Y or the Echo Boomers, these children were born beginning in 1980. The echo generation is thought to have ended in 2001.

The peak of echo births happened in 1991, meaning that since 1992 there has been a gradual decline in the number of natural births in Canada.

Those peak births are now aged 19, which means that the rate of enrollment will drop to coincide with the gradual decline in birthrates that occurred during the 1990s.

Meanwhile, a majority of universities are preparing to deal with an expected growth in enrolment figures. In the latest operating budget, Ryerson

University announced that it is expecting undergraduate enrolment to grow by 13,500 students, or 15 per cent, over the next three years.

This expectation is reinforced by the university’s master plan, which aims to redesign the entire campus to accommodate a constantly growing number of students.

“The [greater Toronto area] is very, very different to almost anywhere in Canada, where the demographics are pointed towards a decline,” said Ryerson president Sheldon Levy.

But some argue that the overall post-secondary sector, and not just the sector outside of major cities such as Montreal and Toronto, should be preparing for a drop in enrolment instead of an increase.

Such a drop is already developing in Eastern Canada, where the demographic age is around five years ahead of the rest of the country. Following an audit carried out by the federal group of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions, a 2008 summary report shows that enrolment figures to both colleges and universities are expected to decline by 216,000 over the next 15 years.

“Demographic trends are long-term trends, so it’s very easy to ignore them in the short term,” said Foot. “If you’re looking just to the next year, then demographics aren’t going to be terribly important.”

“The longer you look at the time and the longer you plan, the more important demographic trends become,” he added.

Along with the Council of Ontario Universities — an umbrella organization that lobbies the provincial government on behalf of every university in the province – most universities are expecting a large rise in enrolment based on projected participation rates, which are the numbers of high-school students that choose to enter post-secondary education immediately following graduation.

“The demographic projections particularly for the next five years in the GTA are an increase in university-bound cohort,” said Keith Alnwick, registrar at Ryerson. “We’re working on that assumption and we’ve identified a variety of strategies to accommodate that.”

However, there is an argument that those predicted participation numbers
may not be able to be trusted.

“You may well hear from a university president that we’ve got all the minority groups to use and that we can raise the participation rates of women,” said Foot, adding that he believes that idea will not work because of women’s 2008-09 undergraduate enrolment rate of 58 per cent already being higher than men’s.

“Most of the behavioral levers that we’ve raised in the past, namely raising the participation rates of women to offset the decline have already been used,” said Foot.

“The participation rates of Aboriginals and disabled, well they’re such a small percentage of the population that it’s not going to have nearly the same effect that raising the participation rates of women had, to a half of the population.”

One way that universities may be able to balance the numbers of enrolment is to recruit outwards in order to find international students, who could bring additional benefit by bringing a revenue of up to three times the average Canadian undergraduate students spend during their time at university.

“The province in their last budget has asked all universities to look at increasing international enrolments by as much as 50 per cent, and we are looking to increase our number as well,” said Levy. “We would plan somewhere around a 15 to 20 per cent increase over the few years.”