À mon avis
In my opinion
Demographics and enrolment
A postsecondary enrolment
bust is coming
by David K. Foot
David K. Foot, an economist
and demographer, is professor
emeritus at the University of
Toronto and the bestselling
author of Boom, Bust & Echo.
or the past 15 years, Canada’s postsecondary institutions have benefited from educating the children of the Boomers. The
Echo, or Gen-Y, generation includes those
born between 1980 and 1996. They are
now aged 18 to 34. Those born in the peak year,
1991, are 23 years old, possibly finishing undergraduate studies or doing a graduate degree.
This enrolment boom is now over. The
groups coming behind them are smaller– much
smaller in some jurisdictions. We knew this
would happen. The Echo generation boosted
elementary enrolment, then expanded high
school enrolment from the early ’90s to mid-
2000s. Since they’ve gone, school boards across
the country have begun retrenching. It’s simply
a matter of time for these school closings to move
on to the postsecondary sector.
These developments aren’t without precedent. The college system in many provinces was
established or expanded in the 1960s to accommodate the Boomers. Then enrolments flattened
as they exited in the 1980s.
But, skeptics will argue, demographics is not
destiny: enrolment declines can be offset by tapping into underrepresented groups such as
immigrants, Aboriginals, people with disabilities
and women. Indeed, the post-Boomer enrolment
decline was partially offset by increased participation of women in postsecondary education.
But women make up half the population.
Changes in their participation rate can have a
big impact on enrolment – so much so that
women now comprise the majority of students.
The same cannot be said for today’s underrepresented groups. Each is a much smaller slice
of the population than women, and, although
difficult to measure accurately, together they
amount to at most 15 percent, much less in many
jurisdictions. Increasing the participation rates
of these groups – however important this may
be to society – cannot compensate for demographically driven declines on the horizon.
And what is on the horizon? The decline
starts in Atlantic Canada, whose population is
older than Western Canada’s, and gradually
spreads across the country. Enrolments in Atlantic provinces have started dropping, despite
unprecedented attempts to recruit students from
central Canada and overseas. Quebec, then
Ontario, will follow. Overall, the 18-to- 24 age
group that grew almost 20 percent between
1996 and 2013 should contract about 10 percent
over the next decade. Of course, the enrolment
decline will affect some places, institutions and
programs more than others.
In the face of this, what is a good strategy for
Canada’s colleges and universities? First, do not
expand capacity. By all means upgrade outdated
facilities and replace buildings where necessary,
but don’t create additional space. Try to accommodate any local capacity constraints elsewhere in the
system or through partnership arrangements.
Second, review admission standards. A short-
term response might be to lower entry marks to
increase numbers, but this solution would
become a slippery slope, eroding more each year
in an attempt to maintain enrolment. Instead,
other admission elements, such as transfer
requirements, deserve attention to attract and
retain students in a program, institution or the
system as a whole.
Third, review recruitment strategies. Spending more resources on a declining pool of potential students leads to more competition and, ultimately, ruin for all institutions. Instead, look for
alternative sources. Underrepresented groups
may need appropriate support systems to succeed. A large, growing and often overlooked
group is low-income households. Raising participation rates from this group, using tuition
relief, financial assistance and similar policies,
could be quantitatively significant.
The largest potential pool is outside Canada.
While international students have become a
larger portion of the student body, they still represent less than 10 percent of total enrolment.
Countries with large populations are obvious
sources. So are countries with large populations
of student age, including Mexico, Turkey, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines. But international recruitment has its own challenges; it is
difficult to assess quality and qualifications and
to ferret out fraud.
Finally, even if some jurisdictions wanted to
expand their postsecondary systems, this will
become more difficult: postsecondary budgets
will be increasingly pressured by healthcare budgets as declining numbers of student-aged Canadians are accompanied by growing numbers of
Canadian elderly. The era of postsecondary
growth is over for the next decade or more.
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“This enrolment boom is
now over. We knew this