Higher Education Strategy Associates

It’s Not Just Demographics

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.

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5 Responses to It’s Not Just Demographics

  1. Sean Lawrence says:

    This is just my impression, but it strikes me that the institutions with the largest decline in applications are those that, ten to twenty years ago, were all “about changing program offerings to respond to students’ shifting interests.” I’m not sure that there’s a way to measure these things quantitatively — numbers of press releases, maybe?

    Laurentian, for instance, advertises on its web page that it “is renowned for its signature programs in: environmental studies, health sciences, mineral exploration and mining, engineering, and management. We also offer unique specialty programs in forensic science, sports administration, midwifery, and human kinetics, among many others.” Nevertheless, its enrolment seems to be declining precipitately, from what you say. For that matter, most of the institutions with the largest drops in demand are relatively new, without a long tradition to defend against change.

    What I’m suggesting is that chasing student demand is kind of a mug’s game, like trying to anticipate market demand. What it certainly does do is detract from the position of traditional arts programs in the institution’s advertising materials and curricular balance.

    Are there any institutions where applications to Arts went up, or merely held steady? Are they the ones with the most unstable curricula? Are they the ones that take humanities for granted, while relentlessly advertising new offerings in (more or less) applied sciences?

  2. Philip Varghese says:

    Great post Alex – the sands are shifting indeed. Re: Arts’ situation, I’m having a hard time seeing a path forward for Arts faculties that does not lead to gradual decline if the basis of competition is career outcome. This is what I mean:

    If we assume that Ontario’s 17 t0 19 year olds are making first year university decisions by comparing starting wages of graduates across the programs they are considering, then it may be a good idea for Arts faculties to focus program development on career outcomes. If this is the path forward, how are they dealing with the following:

    1. Faculties of Arts have less capacity to respond to or anticipate shifts in the career/job market than their major “competitors”: faculties of business, science and applied sciences (engineering, nursing et al). Compare the co-op employment reports for Business, Engineering, Science programs with Arts. When I’ve done this, I’ve noticed that Arts trails in the quantity, quality and diversity of employers listed as co-op partners.

    2. Currently, there are few career pathways that Arts graduates can access, that graduates of Business, Engineering or Science programs can’t access just as easily (I’m building a list of these exceptions to the rule and additions are welcome) – the path to a teaching job is shorter for an Ivey HBA grad than a path to finance or accounting for Western english BA – I don’t see where Arts faculties will find a career outcome space that could serve as an “economic moat’ (Warren Buffet reference) against competition from other faculties.

    3. Assuming that an Arts faculty develops an insight about emerging career/job opportunities before Business, Applied Sciences and Science faculties do, how will they resource the development, staffing and marketing of a targeted program while holding off the inevitable competitive response by faculties who are better able to generate revenue external to provincial operating grants (international students, professional programs, development drives, provincial/fed research grants etc), and are better positioned (see 1. and 2.) for career preparation.

    I’d love to see a list of Arts faculties (or just a single existence proof) at Ontario universities who are outcompeting the other faculties on their campus when it comes to developing career outcomes for graduates – if they are just competing with other Arts faculties, it’s zero sum (with a shrinking pie).

  3. Corrine Johnston says:

    Can you tell where you obtained the data for the statement that Social Sciences and Humanities starting wages are down 20% or more over the past six years.

    I think there may be a bligger picture as I am hearing that the SSH salaries become comparable to most other sectors within 5 years of graduation.

    • Alex Usher says:


      Yes, they do become more comparable (they;re still lower), mostly because Arts students are more likely to go on and pursue second degrees. But even if that’s true, you have to ask yourself which income signal students are listening to – the one 6 months out or the one 5 years out? It;s an open question, but my guess is they’re worried about the short term.

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