University applications rise in Ontario, but barely

Slow growth adds fuel to the enrolment debate

Applications from high school students to Ontario universities have continued to increase this year, according to preliminary numbers released by the Ontario Universities’ Application Centre (OUAC). Applications are up 1.1 per cent compared to last year.

However, the growth of applicants has slowed considerably compared to last year, when it rose by by nearly five per cent. This adds further fuel to the debate raging in higher education circles over the future of university enrolment levels. Will Canada experience a continuing upsurge in university enrolment, or have we reached a peak?

Last year, an audit performed by the Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions, or OSFI, a federal oversight agency, said enrolment at Canadian universities would start decreasing in 2009. (See: Yes, there will be shrinkage. Jul 2, 2008). Ontario’s universities, however, have been telling a different story, saying that demography and economics are likely to lead to an university enrolment boom in Canada’s largest province. According to the Council of Ontario Universities, enrolment at Ontario campuses could increase by 120,000 new students by 2021. (See: Do I hear 120,000. Oct 4, 2007) Most of this growth is expected to occur in the Greater Toronto Area. (See: Is there really a looming space crunch in Toronto? Jul 31, 2007)

It’s difficult to make conclusions based upon the first release of application data from OUAC, but a few observations are possible.

While the numbers do not fulfil COU’s prophecy provincially, we’ll have to wait and see if predictions of a major crunch in Toronto come to pass later this year.

Applications at the University of Toronto and Ryerson University have grown, but they’re not skyrocketing. Applications at the two universities increased by 2.9 per cent and 3.7 per cent respectively. The total increase in applicants between the two schools is 2,544 potential students. York University is a wildcard: with the CUPE 3903 strike dominating the headlines, applications are down 10.8 per cent — representing 4168 fewer applications than last year.

Due to the York strike, its hard to say anything definite as to whether or not there is a “Toronto Space Crunch.” We’ll have to wait until final enrolment figures are finalized in the summer.

In the rest of the province, only two universities saw double-digit increases in applicants this year, and application numbers at other universities are distinctly mixed, with applications falling on many campuses.

Algoma University, Ontario’s newest university (and one of its smallest) which previously operated as a satellite college of Laurentian, has seen a 40 per cent increase in applications. The new university may have benefited from its clever and widespread Colossal U publicity campaign. The majority of Algoma’s increase is in students making it their fourth or lower choice, though 14 per cent more students did make the university their first choice. (In Ontario, students apply to multiple universities through the centralized OUAC applications centre. They also list the universities applied to in order of preference.)

University of Guelph – Humber, a joint college/university campus continues to see large growth. Last year at this time, applications at the suburb Toronto campus were up 24.7 per cent. This year, the increase is 17 per cent.

Many universities saw a decrease in applications. Brock, Laurentian, Nipissing, Trent, Waterloo, Western, Laurier, and Windsor are all showing a drop in applicants.

Applications by program are not showing the same variance as last year when applications to environmental and mathematics programs skyrocketed. This year, growth in environment students continues at 8.5 per cent but applications to mathematics degrees is down 7.5 per cent. Only two programs are showing a double-digit increase. Both nursing and social work show increased popularity with potential students.

OUAC will release updated statistics in the middle of February and continue to do so monthly until final enrolment figures are confirmed in September.