The Council of Ontario Universities (COU) released an amusingly defensive press release last month, just after the high school applications deadline. After a glancing acknowledgment that applications to university are down in the province for the second year in a row, we are earnestly told: DEMOGRAPHICS! APPLICATIONS WAY UP IF YOU USE 2000 AS A BASE YEAR! JOBS! DEMOGRAPHICS! MORE JOBS! DID WE MENTION DEMOGRAPHICS?
I guess COU views itself as a prophylactic against negative press coverage that secondary school applicants to university are now down more than 5% over the past two years (actual applications are down only 2%, but that’s because students, on average, are applying to more schools than before). And maybe that’s fair enough, because most of the decrease is due to demographics rather than a fall in the actual application rate. But this attitude is only semi-productive, because while the overall decline in applications may not reflect a change in the public’s view of universities, the changing application numbers are going to produce some pretty dramatic alterations in the province’s higher ed landscape.
Let’s start first at the institutional level. The only institution where first-choice applications are definitively above where they were two years ago is Nipissing. Which, you know, thank God because after the way the province screwed them on funding for Education, they could use a break. On the other side, seven institutions in Ontario are looking at declines in first-choice applications from Ontario secondary schools of 10% or more: Brock, Guelph, Laurentian, Western, Ottawa, Lakehead, and Windsor. Ottawa can perhaps afford this since it’s recently had an offsetting surge in Quebec applications, but elsewhere those declines are going to directly impact the bottom line, and result in cuts. At Lakehead and Windsor, where application drops are 18% and 19%, respectively, the scope of impending cuts looks positively savage.
The numbers are perhaps even more portentous if you look on a faculty basis. In most fields of study, numbers are relatively flat. Science, Business, and Nursing are all fluctuating within a 2% band. Fine and Applied Arts are up a little bit over 4%, and Engineering is up by over 13%. But Arts. Oh my Lord, Arts: down nearly 16% in two years.
No, that’s not a typo. Sixteen. One-six. In two years.
The implications of this are huge. In the very short-term it’s good news because class sizes will decrease. But in the medium-term, institutions simply will not be putting money into units where revenue is falling. So Arts faculties should expect hiring freezes, loss of positions through attrition, reductions in budgets for sessionals, etc.
And remember, this won’t be because Visigothic neo-liberal governments don’t respect Social Sciences and Humanities; it will be because young people simply aren’t interested in studying in these fields. And the reason they aren’t interested is because starting wages are down 20% or more over the past six years. Decry their utilitarian approach to education if you must, but the simple fact is that unless Arts faculties get serious about changing program offerings to respond to students’ shifting interests, there are going to be deep program cuts ahead.
That’s something worth talking about, and soon. The longer we tell ourselves this is just about demographics, the worse things are going to get.