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StatsCan Study on Universities’ Post-Pandemic Future Is Missing a Major Opportunity

08/25/21   |  
Graeme Owens, EVP & Country Manager at Keypath Education Canada

All of us who work in post-secondary education, and care deeply about its success in the immediate and longer-term, took notice of the StatsCan study released on August 18 with real concern. It paints a stark - but not unexpected - picture of the situation faced by Canadian universities today. Specifically, the study says:

"… Canadian universities could lose between $438 million (-1.0%) to $2.5 billion (-5.7%) of projected revenues for 2020/2021.”

Before the pandemic, experts were calling for a 9% decline in enrolment in 2021 over 2015 levels thanks to declining numbers of high school students. Without factoring in the pandemic, recession, and related impacts, enrolment is not expected to recover to 2015 levels until 2033. As I’ve said before, this poses an existential threat to institutions that, as of the 2016-2017 academic year, relied on tuition fees for 27% of their total revenue. 

To raise revenue, universities first tried to prop open what I call Door #1: domestic students. That door was already getting tighter to squeeze through before COVID. So, without a large increase in government funding to draw from, universities went looking for revenue sources elsewhere – by attracting more international students. That was Door #2. 

And, for a while, the students coming through Door #2 helped universities a great deal. Between 2007-08 and 2016-17, international student enrolment rose by 123%, while revenue from international tuition fees increased by a full 218%. Then, the pandemic hit and travel restrictions were put in place worldwide. Door #2 slammed shut. 

Here’s how the StatsCan study summarizes the impact of all these developments:

“In the most pessimistic scenario, with a decrease of 21.8% of international students combined with a 20.1% decrease of domestic students, revenue losses could reach $2.5 billion. In this scenario, the greatest impact, as a share of existing revenues, would be experienced among universities in Ontario (-$1.7 billion or -8.9% of projected revenues) and British Columbia (-$430 million or –6.9% of projected revenues).” 

The report goes on to say, “At the provincial level, the impact of a drop in student enrolments is much greater in those jurisdictions where universities rely more heavily on tuition revenue. The estimated percent of tuition revenue for 2020/21 is highest in Ontario (at) 42.9%.”

The situation, it would seem, is dire. But the StatsCan study, for all its valuable findings and good intentions, has failed to point toward an exciting and viable way forward for our universities. It’s what I call Door #3. And it has the added benefit of addressing the most important concern we’ll face as our economy moves out of the pandemic: how to upskill and reskill workers to fill the jobs of the future. 

Door #3 is attracting more working learners through macro-credential programs. 

Working learners are career-oriented professionals pursuing further progression in their chosen fields. They are expanding their skill-sets in pursuit of career advancement (upskilling) or those acquiring new skills to facilitate a career change (reskilling).

We know that the working learner looks for flexible, online and asynchronous offerings to accommodate a busy lifestyle due to time and family commitments, as well as work-related obligations. This target audience represents a viable market of learners with the disposable income, interest, motivation and flexibility to pursue higher education in hopes of continued growth and development as professionals.

I've written before on how this audience is attracted to macro-credentials (purposefully built, market demand-focused, online programs), which offer a new solution that caters to learners’ needs while addressing employers’ demands in occupations which require comprehensive degrees for preparation and professional practice. These innovative, demand-driven programs represent an important addition to the spectrum of career-oriented education and training in Canada. 

At Keypath Canada, we specialize in using data, analyzed by a diverse group of in-house experts, to identify and advise our partners on how to act upon trends in the future of work. As valuable as the recent StatsCan study is, it’s missing out on the opportunity – one could even call it the pressing need – for our universities to open Door #3 and embrace working learners.

It’s not just in our economy’s interest, it’s in the schools’ too. Today universities face fixed costs to staff and operations. With revenue declining, working learners offer an opportunity to reach a new audience with the same resources. Macro-credential programs are easily scaled and are not limited to the number of seats in a classroom. We know it can succeed, because we’ve been working with partners in Canada since well before the pandemic to take their existing course offerings and translate them into a modular online format that mirrors the content, learning experiences, and student supports of an on-campus degree. 

Macro-credentialing works for working learners. The need has never been greater. The opportunity has never been more enticing. We just need to step through the door. 

Get in touch with us if you're interested in learning more.

This article originally appeared on LinkedIn.