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Atlantic universities try to boost enrolment amid a declining university-aged cohort

It is crunch time in Eastern Canada.


Cape Breton University is a long way from home for Chinese student Qiang Zhang, who prefers to go by his chosen English name “Kelex.” But he has nothing but praise for CBU, where he is pursuing a bachelor of hospitality and tourism management degree. Not even the unusually harsh winter has dampened his enthusiasm. Earlier in the day he had a job interview with a major Halifax hotel. If all goes well, he plans to stay. “I really love this country,” he says. “I want to build my career here.”

Situated in a region rooted in steel and coal mining industries 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 (PDF) 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, delivering 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 higher learning.”

In recent months Dr. Wheeler has taken his pitch to local municipalities, 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 already 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.

Enrolment drops driven largely by a contraction in undergraduate numbers

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.

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 implications 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 undergone 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 international 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.

Have we run out of ideas?

Perhaps no one can attest to this more than Robert Campbell, the affable 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 neutralize 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 universities. “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 market 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 like that.”

In February, the UPEI announced plans to overhaul its scholarship program to provide smaller awards to more students. Starting in the fall of 2014, scholarships will be guaranteed to all entering high school students and returning undergraduate students who have a minimum average of 80 percent.

Tuition discounting alone won’t solve the problem, though. Institutions are constantly fine-tuning their recruitment practices, says Dr. Campbell. He’s pleased to note that Mount Allison’s applications and acceptances for the 2014 academic year are up.

In nearby Halifax, Mount Saint Vincent University wants to leverage its longstanding tradition of serving underrepresented students to boost its numbers. Founded in 1873 by the Sisters of Charity to educate at first novices and then young women, MSVU (now co-ed) is reaching out to Aboriginal students, African Nova Scotians and mature students, says President Ramona Lumpkin. MSVU already has one of the highest proportions of part-time students in the country, about half of overall enrolment. Many are mature students enrolled in professional graduate programs. MSVU uses shopping malls and the armed forces to tap this 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.

Competing for international students

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 international students, Dr. Foot says. But he predicts that even pockets of Ontario could soon feel the pinch.

Looking to the future

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 by 2015.

Mr. O’Heron concedes that recruitment will be an increasingly complex and strategic exercise in an era of waning youth population. While some observers say the days are gone when institutions could lower entrance 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 modestly 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 colleges 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.”

Rosanna Tamburri
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  1. Dr. Michael Power / April 9, 2014 at 14:32

    As a native Nova Scotian, this story was of particular interest to me. I was somewhat surprised to see no mention of online learning (OL) of of its potential for Nova Scotian universities. I am a professor at Université Laval where we have over 700 online courses. I personnaly teach weekly online seminars with students attending from everywhere from Morocco, to France and the US. OL is becoming a game-changer for many universities and not the the large ones: indeed, smaller universities are creating strategic alliances offering courses in areas where they excel and outsourcing where faculty resources are insufficient.

    (for more on Laval onlines courses, see:

  2. Phil Menger / April 9, 2014 at 20:14

    Hold the fort. Looking to increase enrolments? Then quite concentrating on the younger demographic and look at us older folks. I returned to university at the University of the Fraser Valley in BC at age 61! I got a diploma in Library and Information Technology in 2011 at age 64 and I will be graduating with a Certificate in Adult Education and Workplace Training this year at age 66! Wake up and smell the coffee folks. I am not the only one returning to university as a seasoned adult. Many others are looking for new careers, new paths etc. the name of the game is LIFELONG LEARNING remember?????

  3. Phil Menger / April 9, 2014 at 20:20

    RE: Dr. Power: you are absolutely correct. In fact seniors, such as myself, who return to university in later life rely on the online courses. Most of my education since I turned age 60 has been online where I have graduated in two disciplines. These universities need to wake up and smell the coffee. Because it is in the kitchen of my own personal classroom. At home! Enrollment at the University of the Fraser Valley in BC is booming and has been since 2008. The online environment is a great way to meet people from across BC, Canada and the globe. And if they are basing their data on a 1996 book? I say they better get to a library. Older Canadians are going BACK to university, not abandoning it.

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