The enrollment dilemma

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Post-secondary enrollment is predicted to drop along with plunging birth rates. And with President Sheldon Levy dead set on the Master Plan, will Ryerson University sit empty? News editor Lee Richardson investigates

As Ryerson University works on expanding its campus, a predicted drop-off in enrollment rates could bring cuts to university budgets and programs. Unless universities find a way to fill the gap, there may be a lot more empty seats in class.

“Around about now we’re at the maximum capacity in post secondary enrollments, and over the next two, three, four years the number of enrollments will start to decline throughout the system,” said University of Toronto economics professor and author of “Boom Bust and Echo” David Foot.

The baby decline

While many universities are looking to expand their campuses and programs, the idea of universities dealing with a capacity max-out comes from the high amount of children that were born out of the Baby Boom generation.

Also known as ‘Generation Y’ or the ‘Echo Generation’, these children were born around 1980 and reached the age of 19 around 2009. The Echo Generation is thought to have ended in 2001.

The peak of Echo births happened in 1991, meaning that since 1992 there has been a gradual decline in the number of natural births in Canada.

Those peak births are now aged 19, which means that the rate of enrollment will drop to coincide with the gradual decline in birthrates that occurred during the 1990s.

Meanwhile, a majority of universities are preparing to deal with an expected growth in enrollment figures. In the latest operating budget, Ryerson announced that it is expecting undergraduate enrollment to grow by 13,500 students, or 15 per cent, over the next three years.

This expectation is reinforced by the university’s Master Plan, which aims to redesign the entire campus to accommodate a constantly growing number of students.

“The GTA is very, very different to almost anywhere in Canada, where the demographics are pointed towards a decline,” said Ryerson president Sheldon Levy.

“In the GTA there’s got to be a plan for some growth, I wouldn’t say huge growth but significant growth,” said Levy, adding that Ryerson currently has 10 applications for every spot available.

Prepare for a drop

But some argue that the overall post-secondary sector, and not just the sector outside of major cities such as Montreal and Toronto, should be preparing for a drop in enrollment instead of an increase.

Such a drop is already developing in Eastern Canada, where the demographic age is around five years ahead of the rest of Canada. Following an audit carried out by the federal group of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions (OSFI) a 2008 summary report shows that enrollment figures to both colleges and universities are expected to decline by 216,000 over the next 15 years.

“Demographic trends are long term trends, so it’s very easy to ignore them in the short term,” said Foot. “If you’re looking just to the next year then demographics aren’t going to be terribly important.”

“The longer you look at the time and the longer you plan the more important demographic trends become,” he added.

Short term goals

Along with the Council of Ontario Universities — an umbrella organization that lobbies the provincial government on behalf of every university in the province – most universities are expecting a large rise in enrollment based on projected participation rates, which are the numbers of high-school students that choose to enter post-secondary education straight after high-school graduation.

“The demographic projections particularly for the next five years in the GTA are an increase in university bound cohort,” said Ryerson Registrar Keith Alnwick.

“We’re working on that assumption and we’ve identified a variety of strategies to accommodate that.”

However there is an argument that those predicted participation numbers may not be able to be trusted.

“You may well hear from a university president that we’ve got all the minority groups to use, and that we can raise the participation rates of women,” said Foot, adding that he believes that idea will not work because of the women’s 2008/2009 undergraduate enrollment rate of 58 per cent already being higher than men’s.

“Most of the behavioral levers that we’ve raised in the past, namely raising the participation rates of women to offset the decline have already been used,” said Foot.

“The participation rates of Aboriginals and disabled, well they’re such a small percentage of the population that it’s not going to have nearly the same effect that raising the participation rates of women had, to a half of the population.”

Border crossing

One way that universities may be able to balance the numbers of enrollment is to recruit outwards in order to find international students, who could bring additional benefit by bringing a revenue of up to three times the average Canadian undergraduate students spend during their time at university.

“The province in their last budget has asked all universities to look at increasing international enrollments by as much as 50 per cent, and we are looking to increase out number as well,” said Levy.

“We would plan somewhere around a 15 to 20 per cent increase over the few years.”

While international students could bring a boost in income to universities, the idea of planning to attract recently landed immigrants may be difficult to pull off because of immigrants now tending to be older and more experienced.

Canada reformed its immigration policy in the late 1980s in an effort to reestablish itself as a education-based knowledge economy.

Those immigrants established enough to make it through the immigration points system, which rewards career and life experience such as having a family, generally already have a higher level of education.

“No amount of immigration will compensate for this,” said Foot.

“Immigrants now are predominantly in their 30s with kids and they’re not settling in the cities anymore.”

This is due to the urban – non-urban divide, which basically means that the inner cities of urban Canada are generally more made up of younger people than the non-urban suburbs and rural areas. He added that immigrants are now being drawn to smaller cities like London, Guelph and Kingston.

“Immigrants are not going to bail out the universities anymore,” said Foot. Such demographics could mean that universities may have to look to cutting programs or increasingly rely on non-tenured teaching staff. “It’s the outsourcing model that businesses have run for the last decade to keep costs under control,” said Foot. “They’ve outsourced to temporary faculty, which I don’t think is a good way to run post-secondary education, but this is the way it’s being run now.”

Photo: Marta Iwanek

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