Postsecondary Enrolment in Canada is Set to Stagnate Until the 2030s
For the last two decades, postsecondary education in Canada has relied on growing student enrolment for its survival. Now, facing a demographic cliff, that business model is in jeopardy.
As I’ve written recently, the early 2000s were a time of budget surpluses when governments could — and did — spend heavily on enrolment, hoping to tap into the then-new knowledge economy as manufacturing began to flag, and the ‘echo-boom’ – the children of baby boomers – flocked to campuses across the country.
As a result, between the academic years of 2001-02 and 2009-10, enrolment across Canada increased by 27%, while universities saw a funding increase of over 50%, driven by these increases in enrolment. During this time, Canada became one of the most educated countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
Enter the demographic cliff.
Even before the pandemic, Ontario universities were expected to see a 9% drop in enrolment by 2021 over 2015 levels. And without factoring in the pandemic, recession, and related impacts, enrolment is not expected to recover to 2015 levels until 2033. This poses an existential threat to institutions who, as of the 2016-2017 academic year, relied on tuition fees for almost 27% of their total revenue. According to HEQCO, 90% of annual operating revenue at postsecondary institutions in Ontario is impacted by enrolment numbers. As government investment continues to flatline, institutions are counting on enrolment-based funding to stay afloat.
As the funding gap widens, some institutions may look to the pandemic and the related recession as an opportunity to temporarily boost enrolment by bringing in new or returning students who are looking to enter the workforce or retrain. The Great Recession provided this type of boost to enrolment when it rose year-over-year by over 100,000 students in the 2009-10 academic year. However, this influx of students was short-lived and, in 2014-15, was followed by the first national decrease in year-over-year enrolment since 1997-98. Similarly, it’s unlikely that the pandemic and this recession will lead to a sustained influx of new students boosting enrolment.
As domestic enrolment slows, many institutions are instead increasingly turning to international student enrolment to make up the difference. Between 2007-08 and 2016-17, international student enrolment rose by 123% while revenue from international tuition fees increased by 218%. This explosion of international student enrolment also resulted in $3.25 billion in new funding during a time when domestic enrolment brought in a significantly smaller $2.34 billion.
But the pandemic has shown that there can be unexpected downsides to investing so heavily in international students who choose to study abroad as much for the experience of another country as they do for the education they are pursuing.
A survey put forward by Colleges and Institutes Canada before the fall semester showed that colleges expected approximately a two-thirds reduction in new international enrolment as compared to 2019-20. Their fears have come true. Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada saw a 60% drop in study permits between April and June and only 10% of the visa volume processed during the same period the previous year. If this decline continues, Colleges and Institutes Canada estimates that Canadian colleges could lose between $1.8-$3.5 billion in revenue over the duration of the pandemic.
But even a return to a pre-pandemic ‘normal’ would be a return to an unsustainably funded sector – one that is facing a demographic cliff and a tough post-recession recovery, during which austerity-minded governments are unlikely to offer up any until-now hidden pots of gold for the sector.
The solution, then, likely won’t be found in the false starts of the past and will require deep thinking about how the sector can embrace a new century and a now truly global postsecondary community.
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This article originally appeared on LinkedIn