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Margin Notes

Congress ’09 – the looming decline in university enrolment

Demography is destiny, and Canadian universities are destined to have dropping enrolments and empty classrooms in the next 10 years, says demographer David Foot.

BY LÉO CHARBONNEAU | MAY 27 2009

Demography is destiny, and Canadian universities are destined to have dropping enrolments and empty classrooms in the next 10 years. That was the prediction of David Foot, author of the bestselling Boom, Bust and Echo. Dr. Foot, a well-known demographer and professor of economics at the University of Toronto, delivered a highly entertaining and thought-provoking talk this morning on “Workplace Trends in the New Millennium” at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences at Carleton University.

Dr. Foot explained that as the “echo” generation (the children of the baby boomers) works its way through the education system, there are far fewer young children in its wake. Thus, school boards had to start closing elementary schools in the late 1990s as the echo generation passed through and these boards are now facing the same dilemma with secondary schools. In another 10 years or so, universities will be next.

“What happened at elementary schools yesterday is happening at high schools today and will happen at universities tomorrow,” he said. “Enrolments are about to decline.”

This has huge implications for universities, particularly as the federal government pours $2 billion through its Knowledge Infrastructure Program into university and college buildings. “Are you going to build new infrastructure to sit empty in 10 years?” he asked.

The priority, he said, should be on addressing the deferred maintenance of all those university buildings built during the 1970s – refurbishing them, retrofitting them and making them more energy-efficient. (The Canadian Association of University Business Officers estimates the amount of deferred maintenance at Canadian universities conservatively at around $5 billion.)

One way to boost enrolment is to look to foreign students, and our neighbours to the south are a good place to start. Because of a higher fertility rate, the U.S. has a higher percentage of young children than does Canada. “PSE [postsecondary education] will grow there for the next 20 years, guaranteed,” said Dr. Foot.

But an even better bet is Mexico, which has a far greater proportion of young children. “How many in your departments speak Spanish?” asked Dr. Foot.

Don’t bother looking to Europe, he said, where the demographic decline is even more pronounced than in Canada. The exception: Turkey, which will become the most populous country in Europe within 20 years. Another good target: India, which continues to have a high fertility rate.

Dr. Foot’s talk was full of all sorts of other interesting observations, including this interesting tidbit: on average, professors in the social sciences and humanities in Canada are considerably older than those in the natural sciences, engineering and applied sciences. He had no explanation for this, but figured university planners should at least be made aware of it.

There was more on Dr. Foot’s observations in an article in today’s Globe and Mail.

ABOUT LÉO CHARBONNEAU
Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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