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Universities: decline in enrollments due to virtual education? False

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Since the beginning of the pandemic, postsecondary educational institutions have feared that students unenthused by virtual courses would desert them. Now that the fall session is well under way, the Rumour Detector finds that the worst hasn’t happened. But the drop in international student enrollments could become an economic problem for these institutions.  

The universities have been on the alert since March. While the courses for the winter 2020 session were being converted into online courses, the universities were already worried that a virtual fall session would trigger a wave of withdrawals.  

The results of a survey of 1100 Canadian students, published in mid-May, proved the pessimists right. Nearly one third (30%) of the respondents were hesitant to enroll in postsecondary institutions for the upcoming 2020 sessions. Among other reasons, they feared that distance education would provide a poor learning experience.  

Three months later, in August, the young company outlined the course offering for the months ahead, based on the intentions of 150 Canadian postsecondary educational institutions. In this compilation, we learned that 54% intended to offer online courses and 40% were going to capitalize on a hybrid formula. Only 4% wanted to give the majority of their courses in person.  

More fear than harm  

The enrollment rates disclosed to date give reason to believe that the apprehended catastrophe has been averted. In Québec universities, the Bureau de coopération interuniversitaire (BCI) reported, on October 2, a total 1.3% increase in enrollments, compared to the fall 2019 quarter. This growth is mainly attributable to students enrolled in postgraduate cycles or part time. 

For example, in August, the Université du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue recorded an overall increase of more than 5% in this fall’s enrollments compared to fall 2019. The same thing happened at Université Laval, which noted an increase of about 4% in student enrollments coming from CÉGEPs compared to last year. The university is still waiting for the publication of official data later this fall, after the withdrawal deadline, before confirming this trend.  

The situation isn’t the same everywhere. Several institutions report an enrollment rate similar to 2019, or slightly lower. This is particularly the case for the Université du Québec en Outaouais and the Université du Québec à Rimouski (UQAR), where the number of students decreased by less than 1%. During the summer session, Université Laval also reported an increase of 3000 enrollments. 

In the rest of Canada, Saint Paul University (Ontario) has seen its enrollments grow by 19%, the strongest growth in its history. The Université de Moncton, the University of Saskatchewan, Mount Royal University (Alberta), Memorial University (Newfoundland) and the University of British Columbia also have more students. However, the increases are generally modest and vary depending on the curriculum.  

Weight of international students  

Can we conclude that the universities have good financial vitality? No, because we must also consider the variation of international students. These universities increasingly rely on this clientele to balance their budgets. They pay higher tuition than Québec and Canadian students.  

Postsecondary students from abroad represented nearly one quarter (23.8%) of new enrollments in 2017-2018, according to Statistics Canada, and more than one third of tuition received. With the border closings and the health restrictions imposed by COVID-19, many of these students are absent this fall. In Québec, the BCI reports a drop of 8.6% in their enrollments compared to fall 2019. At UQAR, only 500 of 1500 international students usually enrolled turned up, Le Devoir reported in August.  

This means revenue losses for the universities. In Canada, according to the different scenarios projected, these losses, over the 2020-2021 academic year, could total between $377 million (a revenue reduction of 0.8%) and $3.4 billion (7.5%). This is according to a document published on October 8 by Statistics Canada. 

The situation is identical in the United States, the New York Times reports. The newspaper adds that the smallest American universities are particularly threatened by the loss of international students.  

This article was originally published on the website of L'Agence Science-Presse (French only).


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