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Facing Enrolment Declines in Post-Secondary Education in Canada: Strategies to Consider

(c) Integrated Analytics & Research Ltd.
Posted April 26, 2016

It is clear that the aging of the Canadian population has already had some impact on overall post-secondary enrolments. Given constant post-secondary participation rates, this impact will continue to 2023 when, compared to 2014, there will be over 35,000 fewer students in Canadian post-secondary institutions. The demographic effect will be more pronounced in universities and relatively less pronounced in colleges but many institutions will continue to face enrolment challenges well into the next decade. Given institutional funding models, which rely on government grants on a per student basis and/or on tuition, many public Canadian colleges and universities can expect eroding financial health unless actions are taken to increase student numbers, reduce costs, or raise revenues. Further, given that the enrolment challenge is generalized, there will be increasing competition between institutions for increasingly scarce students.  



Source: Calculations by  Integrated Analytics & Research Ltd.  based on data from Statistics Canada. Data is based on M1 (medium) population growth projections 2015-2063 and average 2010-2014 post-secondary participation rates by 5-year age cohort (both sexes) including full time and part time students. Data for each province and most regions are available from Integrated Analytics & Research Ltd. (  

Institutions facing enrolment and funding challenges should pursue mindful strategies as opposed to quick “fixes.” Reducing admissions standards may damage reputation. Simply attempting to recruit international students smacks of colonialism. Raising tuition reduces access. Increasing class sizes diminishes educational quality. Relying more on adjunct professors threatens research and governance. Assuming that on-line delivery will always attract more students and be less expensive is mistaken. Each of these (and other) “quick fixes” which may be advanced by some well-meaning individuals (in the public, on the Board, in government, etc.) carries a risk of backfiring and worsening, not resolving, the issue. In many regions, the issue is best framed as an economic one where supply exceeds demand. Given that most institutions have already engaged in reasonable cost reduction strategies, serious institutions need to address the demographic issue in one or more of the following ways:

1. Develop a part-time/returning learner strategy.

Such a strategy could focus on post-degree credentials, 3rd age learning, professional development courses, etc. depending on institutional strengths and capacity. 

2. Build on institutional identity.

Post secondary learners make three choices:

a) whether to pursue post-secondary studies

b) in which program

c) at what institution

Proximity is less of a consideration than it has been in the past and institutions need to develop identities that are compelling to students making complex choices. 

3. Develop a pathways strategy. 

For universities, this can involve articulation, transfer, and advanced credit agreements from colleges. For colleges, this may involve the development of post-degree applied credentials. For both colleges and universities, this may involve the recognition of credit from other countries, potentially accelerated admissions from high schools in dual credit and other arrangements, and the development of experiential learning opportunities. 


4. Develop a diversity and access strategy for under-represented groups. 

The increasing diversity of Canada’s population requires post-secondary institutions to become more inclusive. Further, access of under-represented groups remains a significant issue. Serious access and diversity strategies require support systems as well as a long-term commitment.

5. Develop an applied research strategy.

This amounts to finding ways to use the excess capacity of the institution for research (basic or applied) and finding ways to increase research funding. 

6. Develop a fundraising strategy. 

The fundamental challenge is operational (not capital) and the fundraising needs to be partially devoted to this (such as term endowments for named chairs/programs). Further, it may be possible to finance some “operational capital” through fundraising. 

7. Develop an internationalization strategy.

Recruitment of learners for other countries may seem like an obvious and quick method to raise revenues and fill otherwise vacant seats. But full internationalization is not merely recruitment. Internationalization requires support systems, credible networks, outbound students as well as inbound and an institutional commitment to global engagement. 

Obviously, there are many additional strategies that could be pursued. The optimal institutional strategy will depend on institutional characteristics as well as on the precise challenges faced. No strategy should be pursued unless there is an institutional willingness to see it through in the long run. Further, the demographic challenge differs in each province and within each region of each province. The good news is that all this is reasonably calculable. While competition between universities, between colleges, and between universities and colleges for scarce students would suggest a zero-sum game, the reality is that post-secondary participation rates are tremendously variable across Canada by region, age, race, class, gender, and ability and, in general, there is room for them to increase. Collectively, given that Canada requires a highly-educated population to remain competitive, the joint action of colleges and universities to advocate for reduced tuition and higher post-secondary participation needs to be engaged not for the sake of the institutions but for the benefit of Canadian society as a whole. 

For particular provincial or regional demographic trends and demand projections, contact the author at 

Integrated Analytics & Research Ltd.
47251 RPO Royal City
New Westminster, British Columbia, Canada


Phone: +1 (604) 889 8950