The University of Prince Edward Island is forecasting a slight drop in enrollment this year. The preliminary figures released last week suggest UPEI will have 159 fewer students signed up this year than last.
That’s not enough to cause great concern, at least not yet. But if the trend picks up and if it spreads across the Maritimes, it could signal trouble for the region’s universities and its economy.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of the institutions of higher learning to the sainted part of the world in which we live. Not only do our kids get a decent education, but universities maintain the vitality of communities, provide priceless cultural, research and sports resources and they maintain thousands of Maritimers in good-paying jobs.
The Association of Atlantic Universities, which speaks for the institutions of higher learning across the region, puts their economic value at $2.6 billion a year. More than 38,000 people work for universities doing everything from administration and teaching to research to maintenance.
The total annual payroll from all that activity is worth more than $1.1 billion, helping to generate almost half a billion dollars a year in tax revenues for the provinces. Mind you, that is partly offset by the hefty support universities get from governments. So it’s not all profit, but the overall impact is positive and substantial.
More than 88,000 students, from the Maritimes and all over the world, attend our region’s universities and they add immeasurably to the diversity and quality of life of our communities. Just imagine what Antigonish would be like without St. Francis Xavier, Wolfville without Acadia or Sackville without Mount Allison.
Even provincial capitals collect immense benefits from their post-secondary institutions. Halifax would be just another drab navy and civil-service town without its universities. So would Fredericton, only worse because there’s no navy on the St. John River. Charlottetown would be much the poorer without the energy, vitality and economic power of UPEI.
Some of the country’s finest minds work in our universities and their influence spreads far beyond campus borders. Dalhousie in Halifax boasts 51 Canada Research chairs. Donald Savoie of the Universite de Moncton is one of Canada’s foremost public policy scholars. Dr. Ivar Mendez and his team at the Brain Repair Centre in Halifax are learning to “cure the incurable” by co-ordinating research from around the world.
And those are just a few examples. Universities foster music, literature and the arts. Mount Allison has faculties of fine arts and music. St. FX is one of the few places where music students can major in jazz. UNB offers a Masters degree in creative writing and the University of King’s College offers one in journalism.
It’s not all artsy-fartsy stuff and nerdy science either. The St. FX women’s rugby team won the Canadian Inter-university Sports championship in 2006, 2010 and 2012. Halifax has a long record of hosting the CIS national basketball championships, a matter of fierce pride in the city.
For my money, and lots of it has gone into our universities through tuition for my kids and through my taxes, higher education is still a great investment. But there’s trouble looming in the groves of academe.
If UPEI’s slight enrollment drop is an indication of a wider trend, universities are going to become harder to manage and more expensive to finance. UPEI is already running a deficit, one the Ghiz government declined to pay off. Provinces have their own financial challenges.
The impact of demographics and the global competition for students is starting to bite. And the immediate problem is right here at home.
As the Canadian population ages, fewer students are graduating from high school to boost the potential pool of university entrants. Statistics Canada predicts that sometime during this decade, the proportion of elderly Canadians will exceed that of children, a first for this country.
And as that trend continues, fewer high school graduates will available to feed the universities. The problem isn’t restricted to higher education, it has sweeping implications for the entire economy. Fewer workers will be supporting the tax base needed to maintain the health of our communities.
Universities can see the problem coming and are looking to foreign students as the remedy. Saint Mary’s in Halifax is already approaching 30 per cent foreign enrollment.
This isn’t a bad thing. Families in Asia and the Middle East in particular see the Maritimes as a safe place for their kids to get a good education. The feel confident their sons and daughters can live in Charlottetown or Halifax mostly free of violence and political unrest. If you’re from Sri Lanka or Lebanon, that matters.
And they’re willing to pay for that safety. And that’s probably the best news for the universities going forward and by extension, for all of us.