growing demographic. Will it be enough to offset declines in its traditional
student base? “We think it will be,” says Dr. Lumpkin confidently.
Dr. O’Neill, the consultant who reported on universities for the Nova
Scotia government, sees some hazards ahead. With Canada’s youth population expected to contract across the country, it will become more difficult
for Atlantic schools to recruit students from other provinces, he predicts.
Ontario, an important recruiting ground for many Atlantic Canada institutions, plans to expand existing campuses and possibly open a new one to
accommodate continued strong enrolment growth in the Toronto region.
“It’s a zero-sum game,” says Dr. O’Neill: Some institutions will win but
others will lose.
At the same time, global competition for international students is heating up. And China, one of the Atlantic region’s top source countries for
international students, is rapidly expanding its own postsecondary system.
In his 2010 report, Dr. O’Neill, a former economics professor at Saint
Mary’s who now teaches an executive MBA course there, recommended
that some of Nova Scotia’s 11 universities (now 10) merge. He called for
two of these – MSVU and NSCAD – to join Saint Mary’s or Dalhousie and
for all institutions to consolidate some of their program offerings. Few of
his recommendations have been implemented. But he believes that sooner or later universities will have to make some difficult decisions. “It’s a
question of when, not whether,” he says.
International recruitment will remain fertile ground for a few more
years, says Ken Steele, co-founder of Academica Group, a higher education consulting company based in London, Ontario. But, it is no panacea
and it isn’t without cost or risk, he warns. Once international students
comprise 25 or 30 percent of enrolment, the numbers begin to put a strain
on student support services and discourage other foreign students who
seek a “Canadian experience,” he says.
Moreover, the decline in domestic enrolment is most pronounced in
arts and humanities disciplines while an influx of international students
is spurring demand for business, engineering and other professional programs. “If you’ve got tenured faculty, you can’t simply reallocate them all
to business,” says Mr. Steele.
Some observers believe it’s just a matter of time before the enrolment
crunch spreads westward. Renowned demographer David Foot, professor
emeritus at the University of Toronto and author of the 1996 bestseller
Boom, Bust & Echo: How to Profit from the Coming Demographic Shift, notes
that Canadian universities have benefitted from an “echo boom” over the
last decade or so, as children of the baby boomers have moved through
the higher-ed system. But as that generation readies to graduate, there are
fewer young people to take their place. “We are at peak enrolment,” he
says. “This is the year it turns the corner.”
The Council of Ontario Universities reported in January a slight drop
in the number of applications to the province’s universities, attributing
this to “changes in demographics.” Some institutions will be able to offset
projected declines in undergraduate enrolment by increasing graduate
spaces and by capitalizing on continued inflows of immigrants and in-
ternational students, Dr. Foot says. But he predicts that even pockets of
Ontario could soon feel the pinch.
Herb O’Heron, senior adviser with the Association of Universities
and Colleges of Canada, takes a more optimistic view, noting that rising
participation rates have more than offset past demographic busts for the
better part of 50 years. Even in Atlantic Canada, the declines in enrolment
have been modest, largely because they’ve been offset by rising participation rates, he argues. What’s more, the number of 18-year-olds in Canada
is set to begin growing again by 2020. By 2025, there will be more than
there are today.
And then there are the unforeseen events. “For the longest time people
were talking about Saskatchewan like they are now talking about New
Brunswick,” says Mr. O’Heron. Then a resource boom drew people to that
province and pushed up demand for university education. The University
of Saskatchewan is planning for a seven-percent increase in enrolment
Mr. O’Heron concedes that recruitment will be an increasingly com-
plex and strategic exercise in an era of waning youth population. While
some observers say the days are gone when institutions could lower en-
trance marks by a percentage point or two and watch students pour in,
nonetheless, “that doesn’t mean there won’t be growth.”
Dalhousie University, one of Atlantic Canada’s largest research-
intensive universities, has seen enrolment rise consistently, albeit modest-
ly in some years, partly because of its brand-name recognition. Dalhousie
also made a concerted effort to market itself within Canada to appeal
to larger numbers of domestic students, says Asa Kachan, assistant vice-
president, enrolment management and registrar. Dalhousie attracts more
out-of-province students than any other university in the country, some
42 percent of total enrolment. Many are from Ontario but recent efforts
to boost recruitment in British Columbia and Alberta are starting to pay
off, says Ms. Kachan. Looking ahead, she believes one way to spur future
enrolment growth may be in easing the transfer of students between col-
leges and universities.
“Sometimes you have to be gutsy and step outside the familiar recruitment territory,” says Ms. Kachan. “You have to be open to how an
institution may change.” Ultimately, she adds, “I think we will continue
to find our relevant place.”
“Everything that happens in Canada
happens in Atlantic Canada first,