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Université de Moncton faces uncertain future on its 50th anniversary

The Acadian university undertakes reforms to stay relevant in the face of economic and demographic challenges.

BY OLIVIER ROBICHAUD | JUL 24 2013

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Université de Moncton, the university that serves the francophone Acadian minority in New Brunswick. High spirits prevailed during anniversary celebrations held June 19, but the university’s administrators know that the economic and demographic problems affecting the province pose a serious threat to the institution. At age 50, the university isn’t only looking at the past. It is also looking for solutions for the future.

During the 2012-13 academic year, several conferences were convened to explore the evolution of Université de Moncton and the Acadian community. Many members of that community showed up on June 19 for celebrations (held on all three campuses), to highlight U de M’s contribution to educating several generations of Acadian leaders. The rector, Raymond Théberge, spoke of the institution’s legacy, but he also took time to invite the academic community to think about reforms that could meet the challenges that U de M faces.

“We have, over the last year, celebrated [the university’s] great achievements in different ways,” said Mr. Théberge to the Moncton crowd. “I now invite all of you to participate in the planning process that I launched a month ago under the name Dare to Dream, so that we may better define the issues and the parameters affecting the university in the years to come.”

One issue is that U de M has not only an educational role and a symbolic role in Acadia, but it also is viewed as a tool for economic and demographic development by the three locales where its campuses are located: Edmundston, Shippagan and Moncton. In particular, this view is held by people in the two smaller, northern locations, where the downturn in important economic sectors has had a big impact.

For example, the mayor of Edmundston, Cyrille Simard, is counting on Édupôle to attract qualified workers who could help revamp the city’s economy and stop exodus of residents. Édupôle is a centre that includes the three campuses of Université de Moncton, the Collège communautaire du Nouveau-Brunswick and the Cité des Jeunes high school. Mr. Simard is asking the university to increase the number of complete programs offered at its satellite campuses, instead of forcing most students to finish their studies in Moncton.

But the campuses in Edmundston and Shippagan are having trouble filling that role. Since 1992, enrolment has dropped by 30 percent in Shippagan and by almost 40 percent in Edmundston. The campus in Moncton, on the other hand, has managed to stabilize its enrolment at about 90 percent of 1992 levels. At the start of the 2012-2013 academic year, UdeM had just under 5,000 full-time students, with more than 80 percent enrolled at the main campus. The Edmundston campus had 428 students and the Shippagan campus, 382.

The population exodus affecting northern New Brunswick is expected to continue over the next decade according to government projections. Worse than that, the two sectors – forestry and fisheries – that rely on research done at the two satellite campuses have experienced major downturns, also affecting enrolment. In Edmundston, the forestry faculty enrolled just seven new students in 2011-12 and 10 the following year, whereas at its peak it admitted 20 to 30 new students a year.

So, far from being able to expand programs in Edmunston and Shippegan, UdeM has started a restructuring of its least popular programs. “The elimination or restructuring of certain programs is certainly a possibility,” said Mr. Théberge, noting that a committee is studying the issue.

The university took steps to stem the enrolment declines and has managed to grow its share of its main recruitment pool – graduates of New Brunswick’s francophone high schools – enrolling almost 32 percent of them in 2006, up from 26 percent in 1999. However, Mr. Théberge said that university attendance among young Acadians has probably reached a plateau.

To diversify its student body, the university has stepped up its recruitment of foreign students. Since 2005, the international student body has grown by 14 percent annually, with almost 700 in attendance last year. But that growth can’t entirely make up for the drop in the numbers of New Brunswick students.

In another move, U de M is collaborating with the Collège communautaire du Nouveau-Brunswick. The university is aware of the growing popularity of trade schools because of the increase in natural resource development and shipbuilding in neighbouring provinces. In September, U de M plans to offer a new bachelor’s degree in technology and leadership in collaboration with CCNB. The two-year program will target graduates of some engineering-related programs at the college.

Other fields, including music and police technology, are also seen as collaborative opportunities by the two postsecondary institutions. An infrastructure-sharing centre, akin to Edmundston’s Édupôle, is in the works for Shippagan to reduce administrative and maintenance costs. The recent spurt in logging activity in New Brunswick and other provinces is a source of hope for U de M, which expects forestry enrolment to stabilize at 15 to 20 new students a year over the next decade.

According to Mr. Théberge, Université de Moncton should do well in the long run despite of the numerous challenges that it faces. He said the institution will continue to play an important role in the three regions where it is established, as well as in the Acadian community as a whole.

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