The British Columbia Research Council predicted earlier this year that there would be a shortage of university-educated workers in British Columbia by 2016. UVic’s own undergraduate enrolment numbers foreshadow this coming demographic shift — having missed their targets in the last two years and been short by about 750 to 800 students.
According to Jim Dunsdon, UVic’s associate vice-president of student affairs, other universities (excluding ones in large immigrant destinations such as Vancouver and Toronto) are experiencing the same thing across Canada.
“It is becoming much more competitive between different schools. That traditional age group, the 17- to 24-year-old population continues to decline, making it much more competitive in terms of recruiting,” said Dunsdon, in a quote he clarified by email. “It has been offset a bit by increased participation rates, as over the last several years that cohort was declining, the percentage of that cohort going into post-secondary education was increasing. I don’t think, however, that we can count on participation rates continuing to rise. We think we have reached the maximum.”
Universities are now starting to compete for potential graduates in much the same way that local high schools and elementary schools are competing for local students. The declining youth demographic continues to narrow the number of students entering university direct from high school, as school boards across the province are considering which schools to keep open and which ones to close to deal with falling student populations.
While the undergraduate program has seen a drop in enrolment, the graduate program in contrast overenrolled by 750 to 800 students. Canada now has the most per capita number of college graduates in the world, with about 50 per cent of the population having at least some level of post-secondary education to get ahead in the current tight labour market.
Camosun College, which has a strong academic relationship with the University of Victoria, has consistently enrolled older students instead of the 19- to 24-year-old group even before the demographic shift; most fall into the 24- to 30-year-old age cohort. The average age of a Camosun student is 26.
According to BCStats, fewer young people is likely not an isolated or temporary issue for universities and, in a couple of years, the labour market as a whole. Population levels in the crucial 20 to 24 age range are projected to drop by 48 000 province-wide by 2018. This is a symptom of a larger population change in Canada outside of immigrant-destination cities like Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary and Regina.
As this new reality sets in, universities will have to start providing more incentives for students to come to their campuses, with increased scholarship and bursary programs as it becomes a student’s market.
“One of the things we have done for this year is to enhance scholarship offerings for students in a particular band of grades that we have had lower conversion rates,” said Dunsdon. “So we have put out a new scholarship program that we think has helped based on the positive growth in admittance and application numbers, and we hope that is going to translate into greater number of students come September.”
UVic has recently increased entrance awards scholarships for those students with 85 to 95 per cent grade averages. Award amounts for the three levels of non-renewable entrance scholarships that fall in that range have each increased by $1 000.