OTTAWA, WINNIPEG (CUP) — A recent projection of post-secondary enrolment is predicting an acute shortage of students in Canada’s colleges and universities. Non-traditional applicants are the key to survival, says the report.
?We wanted to put forward a series of what-if scenarios,? said Patrice de Broucker, one of the authors of a Statistics Canada report.
Statistics Canada teamed up with the Canadian Council for Learning to produce the report, entitled Post-secondary Enrolment Trends to 2031: Three Scenarios. It found that enrolment trends in Canada’s universities go far beyond simple demographics.
?We can’t believe that demographics itself (sic) is setting the trends; It’s more than demographics,? de Broucker said.
Three enrolment scenarios were put forward. The first projection, based purely on demographics, assumes students will continue enrolling in institutions at current rates. It concludes that enrolment will reach its peak in 2012?13, after which a drastic decline will occur and prevail for another 13 years.
The second scenario studied long-term trends in post-secondary enrolment from 1990-2006. This projection established a rise in the number of students aged 17?29 until 2017, compensating for a drop in other age groups. But this group too will run out of youth in 2031, leading to another steep decline.
The final and third scenario hypothesizes that men, a newly under-represented group in universities, will begin enrolling at the same rate as women. This prognosis is the rosiest of them all, as it predicts steadily rising numbers in many provinces and age groups well into the future.
Saul Schwartz, a public policy expert at Carleton University who specializes in post-secondary education, doubted the usefulness of studying increased male participation rates.
?Male participation rates, I think, are a function of the economy,? he said. ?Raising them would be difficult in the current economic context, just because there are so many jobs out there that males seem to be attracted to that don’t involve post-secondary education.?
The report comes to a conclusion realized long ago at many universities: the need to attract students from all across Canada, the world and from all socio-economic levels.
?I know a lot of universities [are] worrying about what happens after the baby[-boom] echo moves through the system. One of the things almost all of them are focusing on right now is the international marketplace,? said David Robinson, associate executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers.
Robinson, however, believes that these institutions should first look inside the country for under-represented groups.
?We know there’s a huge cohort here in Canada,? he said.
Peter Mason, 34, was drawn to Winnipeg’s Red River College because of the lack of training opportunities on his reserve at St. Theresa Point, 400 km northeast of Winnipeg.
?There are not so many options in the field you want to study in; That’s why people like me come to colleges and universities [in the city]?to further my education in a different field where no one has ever achieved yet,? said Mason.
Mason has since enrolled in the Aboriginal Self-Governance program at the University of Winnipeg, a degree meant to, according to the program’s website, advance ?original and creative solutions? to aboriginal issues.
?Education is important for me so I can be a role model in the community once I’m done, and inspire other upcoming students . . . to do better,? he said.
But Mason is far from the norm in aboriginal communities and Robinson thinks universities should focus more on changing that.
?We have a terribly low participation rate amongst Canada’s aboriginal population, and yet That’s one of the fastest-growing components of our population; particularly young, urban aboriginals who arguably are in dire need of more education.?
Schwartz, however, doesn’t believe that post-secondary participation can be increased substantially.
?I think most people who want to go are currently going. Aboriginal students are an exception, I think,? he said.
?It’s not just a matter of offering more money or, in my opinion, more information. Those who want to go are going, those who don’t want to go aren’t going, and we can’t do much to change that.?
Schwartz added, however, that if boosting participation rates is the goal, aboriginal students would be ?high on [his] list? along with first-generation students, a conclusion also reached in the Millennium Scholarship Foundation’s 2007 report entitled the Price of Knowledge.
Mature students, those who have already entered the work force but who return to continue their education later in life, were also identified as important to the future of Canada’s universities.
Thirty-six year old Linda Warkentin does not shy away from the title of a mature student.
?I really felt I needed to continue my career . . . I was looking for something that would be fulfilling personally to me and that would enhance the work I’ve already done,? she said.
Universities, colleges, governments and dozens of other organizations already recognize the difficulty of bringing more people like Mason and Warkentin into the post-secondary fold.
Most institutions participate in career fairs in rural areas and abroad. Many also offer rural extensions and programs.
Needs-based bursaries and scholarships often pave the road, and initiatives like the University of Winnipeg’s Task Force on Access aim to improve the availability of post-secondary education to people from all income brackets.
At the federal level, the Post-Secondary Student Support Program and the University College Entrance Preparation Program encourage aboriginal youth to attend university or college by targeting funds at reserves, the distribution of which falls to band councils.
However, at least one observer claims these initiatives are not enough.
?The biggest problem [for Aboriginal youth] is lack of funding That’s holding them back, as education dollars were strictly for education but now they can be moved around to different areas,? said Don Sandberg, Aboriginal policy fellow for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.
De Brucker believes that the Statistics Canada study will help post-secondary policy-makers direct future efforts.
?In the institutions, you either accept the decline and adjust your programs, or you may go after out-of-province students, try to sell yourself,? he said.
While Warkentin recognizes the barriers standing between adults over 25 and post-secondary education, she does not accept excuses.
?It’s amazing how people underestimate what their skills and abilities are . . . They think they can’t do it anymore, and I think It’s a bit of a myth.?