Pluralizing Post-Secondary Education

Commentary, Education, Frontier Centre

A recent study of future post-secondary enrolment predicts an acute shortage of students for Canada’s colleges and universities unless more non-traditional applicants are drawn in.

“We wanted to put forward a series of what-if scenarios,” said Patrice de Broucker, one of the authors of a Statistics Canada report entitled Postsecondary Enrolment Trends to 2031: Three Scenarios, co-written by Darcy Hango and with the help of the Canadian Council for Learning.

“We can’t believe that demographics itself (sic) is setting the trends; it’s more than demographics … But it is a factor to take into account.”

Three enrolment scenarios were studied in the report. 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 2012-2013, after which a drastic decline will occur and prevail over the following 13 years.

The second scenario takes into account longer term trends in post-secondary enrolment over the period 1990-2006. This projection saw a rise in 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 a steep decline.

The final and third scenario hypothesizes that men, a currently underrepresented group in universities, will begin enrolling at the same rate as women. This prognosis is the rosiest, 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, has doubts about 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 StatsCan report comes to a conclusion that many universities long ago realized: there is a need to attract students from all across Canada, the world, and 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 believes these institutes should first be looking inside the country. “We know there’s a huge cohort here in Canada, even if you take away the population issue, who graduate from high school and don’t go on to post-secondary education. We need to find out why and need to target some of those underrepresented groups and get them into the system.”

Robinson pointed to the under-representation of aboriginal students as a problem that needs the attention of policy makers.

“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, on the other hand, doesn’t believe that post-secondary participation can be substantially increased.

“I think most people who want to go are currently going,” he said. “Aboriginal students are an exception, I think.”

“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.”

Despite under-representation, many non-traditional students, including aboriginal Canadians, already make their academic home in post-secondary education.

Peter Mason, 34, came to Red River College in Winnipeg due to the lack of training opportunities on his reserve at St. Theresa Point, located 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 (sic),” 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.

Mason hopes to use his post-secondary education to improve life back in his community.

“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.

Many universities, colleges, governments, and other organizations recognize the difficulty of enrolling under-represented students.

Most institutions participate in career fairs in rural areas and abroad, and many offer rural extensions and programs.

Needs-based bursaries and scholarships pave the road for many, 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 levels of income.

At the federal level, the Post-Secondary Student Support Program (PSSSP) and the University College Entrance Preparation Program (UCEP) 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,” said Don Sandberg, aboriginal policy fellow for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, “as education dollars were strictly for education but now they can be moved around to different areas.”