I just took a look at the new enrolment confirmation statistics for Ontario universities. They are jaw-dropping.
Overall, the system experienced its first fall in “number of confirmed enrolments from secondary school” since (I believe) the early 1990s (I say “I believe” because OUAC doesn’t have public stats that go that far back, but I think that’s right). Ever since the double-cohort, the province’s universities have seen a steady annual 3% bump in total direct-entry enrolments. That’s been the source of a useful financial cushion for institutions.
Now, however, things are heading into reverse. The province’s 18 year-olds fell by 2.1% in 2014. The fall in confirmed direct-entry undergraduate numbers was slightly higher – 2.8%, or about 2,050 students (73,002 in 2013 vs. 70,950 in 2014). But what was striking was less the total than the distribution of these numbers.
Let’s start by looking at changes by institution. Most institutions managed to hit their previous year’s numbers, more or less. Queen’s did; Ryerson actually managed to boost their numbers by 6%; and Western somehow found a way to jump its numbers by 12%. But in a system that’s declining overall, those gains can’t come without losses elsewhere. And some of these numbers are doozies. Waterloo is down 8%. Nipissing and York both fell by a little under 11%. And OCAD University and Laurier are down by – are you ready for this? – 14%.
Some of these numbers can be offset with increases elsewhere. The University of Ottawa, for instance, has five hundred fewer direct-entry students, but has added five hundred non-direct entry students (presumably, these are Quebec students with CEGEP diplomas). And of course, there’s the ever-popular solution of adding more international students. But these are big bucks that institutions are losing. At York alone, you’re talking about a $5 million hit in tuition (larger if you factor in what will happen to the operating grant). If there’s no increase next year, you can double that.
The numbers by field of study are even more stunning. Overall, there was a loss of 2,050 Ontario secondary students. The decline in Arts enrolment was 2,600. Put differently: more than 100% of the decline can be attributed to a fall in Arts enrolment. Hell, even journalism increased slightly. This should be a wake-up call to Arts faculties – however good a job you think you’re doing, however intrinsically valuable the Arts may be, kids just aren’t buying it the way they used to. And if you think that isn’t going to have an effect on your budget lines, think again. Even at those institutions where responsibility-centred budgeting hasn’t taken hold, cash-strapped universities are going to think twice about filling vacant positions in departments where enrolments are declining.
(And lest you think this is just a “kids-just-want-practical-jobs” thing, keep in mind: college new enrolment is also down 2%.)
Is all this a one-off? Well, the 18-year old cohort is going to shrink another 6% over the next three years, which will make it difficult for any institution to maintain its numbers over that period. That’s going to put pressure on budgets across the board, but most particularly at institutions located in places where the demographic picture is weakest. It’s going to create even more incentives for hiking international student numbers. And it’s going to set off changes in the distribution of funding and salary lines within institutions.
It was all fun and games until the enrolment boom stopped. Now it gets interesting.