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Margin Notes

Atlantic Canada sends a signal on enrolment

Demographic changes will be a challenge to Canadian universities in the next few years, although the problem is more acute in the East.


The Maritime Provinces Higher Education Commission issued a sobering report earlier this week (PDF). It announced that, after four years of year-over-year increases, university enrolment dropped in the Maritime Provinces (New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island) in the 2013-14 academic year. The drop was small – just 1.1% – but the trend is troubling. The commission noted that there are now 3,000 fewer students in the region’s universities compared to 10 years ago, a drop of 4.1%.

The comments by commission CEO Mireille Duguay are no more encouraging: “As we have reported before, enrolment of Maritime residents in the region’s universities has been decreasing steadily over the last decade,” she said. “This is the result of not only a demographic decline in the university-aged population, but also of a softening demand for a university education among Maritimers.” The number of Maritimers enrolled in the region’s universities has dropped by 16% (or 8,904 students) since 2003-04.

The region’s universities have managed to make up most of that decline by recruiting more students from elsewhere in Canada (up 11%, or 1,429 students, since 2003-04) and from abroad (up a whopping 77%, or 4,500 students, during that same time period). But even that doesn’t seem to be enough. An editorial in the Feb. 25 Moncton Times & Transcript suggested the time may have arrived to consider closing one of New Brunswick’s universities.

Higher-education policy analysts throughout Canada take an interest in these trends because of the concern that they could be a harbinger of things to come in other provinces. “Atlantic Canada is a laboratory in many ways when it comes to the implications of population aging,” says Michael Haan, as quoted in our own feature story last year on Atlantic universities’ efforts to boost enrolment amid a declining university-aged cohort. Dr. Haan, associate professor and holder of the Canada Research Chair in Population and Social Policy at the University of New Brunswick, added: “Everything that happens in Canada happens in Atlantic Canada first, demographically speaking.”

Perhaps – except the demographic challenges in Atlantic Canada seem to be more implacable than in Canada as a whole. One can illustrate this by using a handy table from Statistics Canada, called CANSIM Table 052-0005, which allows you to look at population projections by age and province far into the future. For the sake of this exercise, I looked at the projected cohort of 18-year-olds from 2015 to 2035 under a “medium-growth” scenario based on the most recent trends. Using these parameters, there are an estimated 432,000 people aged 18 in Canada in 2015. That drops to a low of 406,000 in 2020 but begins to climb back up immediately after and by 2025 the number surges past where we are now and reaches 484,000 by 2035.

So, for Canada as a whole, it appears the demographic challenge will be relatively minor and of limited duration. Not so for Atlantic Canada: for the three Maritime provinces plus Newfoundland, the number of 18-year-olds also dips and begins to recover much like it does in the rest of Canada – but, it never makes it back up to the 2015 numbers over the next two decades.

Of course, there is the caveat that these are projections and not a given. Saskatchewan was in much the same boat a few years ago, but its economy has improved markedly and the projected decline in their youth population has slowed if not reversed. On the other side of the coin, the recent decline in oil prices may bring young adults back to Atlantic Canada from the West, some of whom may decide to pursue a university education.

Atlantic universities, therefore, are not doomed, far from it. As the Maritime Provinces Higher Education Commission points out, the successful recruitment and retention efforts of the region’s universities over the last number of years have allowed them to maintain overall enrolment numbers – at least, up until this past year. A redoubling of the effort to attract more students from elsewhere in Canada and abroad, while increasing the participation rate of Maritime students, might be sufficient to stop the enrolment decline. A renewed emphasis on quality and innovation, with concomitant funding, would also help to attract more students (and is a better strategy than tying funding increases solely to enrolment growth). Regardless, it will likely be a struggle for the area’s universities over the next five years or so. The commission itself acknowledges the challenge, declaring “the time for a dialogue on new strategies is now.”

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is a former editor of University Affairs.
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