Demographers and admissions officers have seen the writing on the
wall for some time. Statistics Canada forecasts the number of 18-year-olds
to drop across Canada from 2010 to 2021, but most sharply in Atlantic
Canada, where this age cohort is expected to contract by about 20 percent.
“Atlantic Canada is a laboratory in many ways when it comes to the im-
plications of population aging,” says Michael Haan, associate professor
and holder of the Canada Research Chair in Population and Social Policy
at the University of New Brunswick. “Everything that happens in Canada
happens in Atlantic Canada first, demographically speaking.”
But demographics alone don’t determine enrolment rates. Universities
have offset past demographic busts by increasing participation rates
and recruiting more international students. Figures from the Maritime
Provinces Higher Education Commission show the region has under-
gone a substantial change in the makeup of its student population over
the past decade. While overall enrolment at Maritime universities (which
excludes Newfoundland) was unchanged from 2002-03 to 2012-13, the
number of students from the region fell by 12 percent while those from
outside the Maritimes grew by 28 percent and the number of interna-
tional students rose by 14 percent.
Still, the region attracts fewer foreign students than institutions in
Central and Western Canada, Dr. Haan notes. What’s more, participation rates in the region are already among the highest in Canada. And
the area is home to several small, principally undergraduate institutions
where the enrolment crunch is most pronounced.
Perhaps no one can attest to this more than Robert Campbell, the af-
fable president of Mount Allison University, a small and highly regarded,
mainly undergraduate university based in tiny Sackville, New Brunswick.
Ever since arriving there eight years ago, Dr. Campbell says he has been
bracing for a drop in enrolment: “It’s really only this year that the penny
seems to have dropped. Have we just run out of ideas or capacity to neu-
tralize the demographic trend?”
He doesn’t believe so. Some institutions, like CBU and Halifax-based
Saint Mary’s University, have become adept at recruiting international
students despite their small size. But that’s not an option for all universi-
ties. “It’s hard enough developing brand awareness in Alberta,” let alone in
China or Brazil, says Dr. Campbell. Mount Allison, on the other hand, has
chosen to focus on extending its domestic reach. Last year it joined forces
with three similar institutions – Acadia and St. Francis Xavier universities
of Nova Scotia and Bishop’s University of Lennoxville, Quebec – to mar-
ket themselves more effectively throughout Canada and to promote the
benefits of a residential, liberal-arts education that they provide.
Dr. Campbell is confident Mount Allison can maintain enrolment at
2,500 to 2,600 students, roughly what it has now. The challenge, he acknowledges, will be the cost.
“When you have a competitive market, what do businesses do? They
have sales. Universities are a little bit in the same kind of game,” he says.
“We have a sticker price but we go out and offer students places at varying
degrees of discount. … I’m not saying we’re BlackBerry, but it’s kind of
Situated in a region rooted in steel and coal mining indus-
tries that have seen better days, CBU knows that its fortunes
could lie in attracting more students like Mr. Zhang.
Like several of its Atlantic Canada counterparts, CBU’s enrolment
fell in 2013 to about 3,100 students, down more than six percent from
the previous year. It’s no great mystery why. Back in 2010, economist
Tim O’Neill warned in a report for the Nova Scotia government of a
“looming system over-capacity” in the face of a shrinking youth population throughout the region. The situation in Cape Breton, concedes
CBU President David Wheeler, is compounded by an outflow of local
residents in search of better economic prospects.
“Everyone needs to understand that the university has got some
choices ahead of it,” says Dr. Wheeler, whose previous appointment was
dean of business at the University of Plymouth in England. CBU can
do nothing and watch enrolment continue to spiral downwards, deliv-
ering yet another blow to Cape Breton’s economy. Or it can grow. It’s
clear which option the president prefers although he doesn’t come out
and say so. What he does say is that the provincial government needs
to acknowledge that CBU is vital to the region’s economic prosperity.
“Therefore we need to be treated like that as well as an institution of
In recent months Dr. Wheeler has taken his pitch to local munici-
palities, service clubs and chambers of commerce as he attempts to chart
a new course for his institution. Growth, he argues, can be achieved by
increasing and diversifying CBU’s mix of international students, who al-
ready account for 29 percent of enrolment. Growth also can be achieved
by attracting more local high school students, improving retention rates,
expanding graduate enrolment in existing programs and introducing
new specialized degrees, like a master’s of tourism management. That’s
where the Nova Scotia government would come in. “For us to pull that
off we would need core funding from the province,” he says.
CBU isn’t the only school in Eastern Canada struggling to stave off
a decline in student numbers. Figures published by the Association of
Atlantic Universities show that enrolment at the region’s 16 institutions
fell 1. 2 percent to just over 89,500 in 2013, down from 90,600 in 2012.
All four universities in New Brunswick recorded declines as did the University of Prince Edward Island and Memorial University in Newfoundland. The picture in Nova Scotia was mixed, with enrolment shrinking
at three institutions – CBU, NSCAD University and Mount Saint Vincent
University – while at several others it was virtually flat. The enrolment
drops were driven largely by a contraction in undergraduate numbers.