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Enrolment will continue to climb despite demographic decline

New report by AUCC predicts 125,000 more students, a 14-percent rise, by 2020.

By LÉO CHARBONNEAU | MAY 26 2011

It’s a fact: the number of Canadians aged 18 to 21 peaked this year, and over the next decade the size of this cohort will decline by about 10 percent. That’s important to universities, since students in this age range account for slightly more than half of full-time enrolment.

But, demography is not destiny, cautions Herb O’Heron, director of research and policy analysis at the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada. “There are a whole host of things beyond demographics that are driving enrolment trends and boosting university participation rates.”

That’s not to say population declines don’t matter, said Mr. O’Heron; they do tend to dampen demand. Some universities in Atlantic Canada are already feeling the effect and as a result are stepping up recruitment efforts both domestically and internationally. Other regions – such as northern Ontario and Saskatchewan – may also be affected in the coming years. But, in the aggregate, university enrolment will continue to climb in Canada over the next decade and beyond, he said.

The many factors influencing enrolment are explored in a new chapter on enrolment (PDF) released on May 26 as part of AUCC’s Trends in Higher Education series. Mr. O’Heron said that “labour market demand is increasingly the most important factor driving students’ expectations and student needs.”

The number of jobs filled by university graduates more than doubled from 1.9 million in 1990 to 4.2 million in 2009, notes the Trends report. As well, the income advantage for these graduates increased during that time span compared with those with a college education or less.

Based on past labour-market trends and projected population changes, the report predicts that there will be close to 1.3 million more jobs for university graduates in 2020 than there were in 2010. In addition, there will be approximately 700,000 to 900,000 more jobs for university graduates to replace those who will retire over the coming decade.

To meet this demand, the number of new graduates will need to grow by about 1.3 percent per year in the decade, said Mr. O’Heron. This works out to, by 2020, an increase of roughly 125,000 full-time students over the 900,000 enrolled in 2010. To ensure this kind of enrolment growth, university participation rates in the key 18-to-21 age group would need to grow to 28 percent from 25 percent today.

This is highly achievable, said Mr. O’Heron. “We are quite conservative in our estimates. We’ve done these predictions in past Trends reports, and in each case enrolment levels actually came out higher than our high-growth scenario.”

The predicted increase works out to about 14-percent enrolment growth over the next decade. To put that in perspective, enrolment increased by more than four percent in each of the past two years and by a whopping 44 percent in the last decade. However, “if we look at longer-term trends going back to the 1990s, the 14-percent growth would be right in line with long-term changes in participation rates,” he said.

Another factor identified in the report that will push enrolment higher is parental education. “The linkage between a parent’s education and their children’s education is strong, much stronger than family income,” said Mr. O’Heron. There has been nearly a four-fold increase in the proportion of parents with a university degree in the past 20 years, and that’s projected to grow. “So that influence of parents will continue,” he said.

Increasing urbanization is also a factor, with higher university-participation rates in urban areas compared to rural areas. What’s more, “half of adults coming to Canada already have a degree in their pocket, and immigrants largely settle in urban areas – all these factors are linked.”

Meanwhile, international student enrolment in Canada has tripled over the past 15 years to about 90,000. International demand for higher education is predicted to soar, so even if Canada were simply to maintain its current market share, that alone will add 45,000 new international students by 2020.

But there is a caveat to these growth scenarios. Enrolment, Mr. O’Heron points out, is not a true measure of student demand. Rather, it is simply a measure of the amount of demand that is met through university capacity. If the federal and provincial governments were to restrain their investments in higher education due to budget constraints, and barring significant increases in tuition fees, universities would be hampered in their ability to accommodate more students and to provide them with a quality learning environment.

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