The University of Manitoba is projecting a decline in enrolment in the upcoming summer, fall and winter terms, as students consider taking a gap year to avoid online learning.
The Winnipeg university’s board of governors approved a balanced $674.6-million budget this week. The 2020-21 budget, which includes a 3.75 per cent hike to both tuition and student fees, accounts for a five per cent drop in provincial funding, remote learning costs and uncertainties related to the pandemic — one of which is enrolment.
While it’s too early to forecast figures "with any degree of certainty," according to the board’s May 19th agenda, U of M is bracing for tuition revenue reductions during the summer and fall-winter periods, declining by approximately 40 per cent and two per cent, respectively.
Grade 12 student Elise Ward was still weighing her options last week when she learned U of M announced it would maintain a virtual campus throughout the fall term. The prospect of more online learning cemented her decision to decline an offer to study biomedical engineering next year.
Ward, 18, said both an unreliable computer and virtual interactions have made school increasingly difficult. Pre-pandemic, she relied on her Winnipeg high school’s library computers and face-to-face instruction to ask teachers questions in band, physics and French class.
Typically, in times of financial uncertainty, students and laid–off workers rush to post–secondary institutes to update their resumes and retool; that’s what happened after the 2008 financial crisis.
"I’m struggling with my online classes in high school and I don't want to know how badly I'd struggle with online university," she said.
Instead, Ward plans to spend the next year working in fast food and saving up for school.
Typically, in times of financial uncertainty, students and laid-off workers rush to post-secondary institutes to update their resumes and retool; that’s what happened after the 2008 financial crisis.
At the tail end of that recession, 40 per cent of Canadian post-secondary students in the class of 2009-10 continued their education after graduating. Statistics Canada suggested graduates returned to school for a number of reasons: among them, increasing educational requirements to meet employer demand and difficulties in the labour market.
Fletcher Baragar, an associate professor of economics at U of M, said he suspects things will look different in the current recession because of public health concerns and subsequent social distancing measures. He predicts enrolment will likely pick up in a couple of years, when campuses resume in-person teaching and activities.
"In addition to all of this and all of the trauma and turmoil that students have been coping with … we’re also seeing an increase in tuition and course fees, lab fees, continuing education fees," said Jelynn Dela Cruz, president of U of M’s students’ union.
Dela Cruz said the increases will take "a pretty big toll" on students already facing uncertainty during the pandemic.
Personal finances aside, students may be dissuaded from attending a school virtually because of the disappearance of student life, Baragar said, adding that prospective international students may also look to complete their studies closer to home if they cannot physically attend a foreign school.
International students account for approximately 19 per cent of the U of M’s student population; students hailing from different countries are charged, on average, upwards of three times more than their Canadian counterparts for tuition and student fees.
"Right now, we’re on a deep learning curve by learning-by-doing, but I think some benefits will come out of that," Baragar said, adding that schools will be able to provide more programs via distance learning, which will make learning more accessible for some in the future.
Economic Development and Training Minister Ralph Eichler said Wednesday some Manitoba schools are predicting growth while others are anticipating reductions.
"Predicting enrolments in a given year can be challenging for any post-secondary institution, and perhaps more so this year with learning shifting to alternative and other online formats," Eichler said in a prepared statement. "There are, as well, increased challenges for international students and a need for re-imagined campus communities."
U of M declined to provide additional context to its enrolment projections Wednesday.
Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.