Schools in Northern Ontario boast of room for students

Colleges lure city-dwellers north for their post-secondary degrees

While young people from remote areas typically gravitate toward bright city lights for their post-secondary education, their big-city Ontario counterparts might want to consider precisely the opposite: a trip to the land of the aurora borealis.

Schools in northern Ontario have more space for students than they can fill, even as urban colleges and universities face higher demand than they can meet. Administrators say they’re trying out new recruitment strategies in an effort to fill the gap.

Rather than build costly new schools on premium city land, the reasoning goes, why not offer incentives to lure city-dwellers north for their post-secondary degrees?

In a recession, employment levels and demand for college programs run in a counter-cyclical manner, said Fred Gibbons of Northern College, an applied-arts and technology school with four campuses spread across northeastern Ontario.

That’s partly why Northern has seen a “phenomenal” 32 per cent increase in enrolment over the last two years, Gibbons said.

As of July 31, all six northern colleges had seen applications increase by about 4.2 per cent, said Colleges Ontario spokesman Rob Savage. Still, many remote colleges and universities sit partially empty despite the increase in demand.

Immigration and the recession have fuelled a spike in applications to southern Ontario schools, too, where space is less plentiful. Provincewide, the average increase in application numbers at colleges is 10 per cent, Savage said.

“It would make sense, rather than new bricks and mortar, to utilize excess capacity in the system now,” Gibbons said. “There is simply more space available in classrooms than we can fill on our own at the present time.”

Northern College’s four campuses could accommodate as many as 700 more students, Gibbons estimated.

Last year, 200 students studied at the school’s campus in Kirkland Lake, Ont., though there’s room for 700. The other three campuses, in the northern Ontario towns of Moosonee, Haileybury and Porcupine, are also running well below capacity.

As population declines in the north and students who comprised the double cohort “bulge” leave university, excess capacity has become a revenue concern and a threat to programming, said Robert Bourgeois, vice president of administration at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ont.

Laurentian takes pride in its low student-professor ratio, but “when we presented our last budget, we indicated to the board of governors that, yes, we do have room to take on more students and we should actively promote that to generate additional revenues,” Bourgeois said.

Last year, just under 9,000 students attended Laurentian, a university that has seen tapering growth over the last two years. The school primarily draws students from the north: in 2008, only 661 students came from the Greater Toronto Area, while 251 came from elsewhere in Southern Ontario.

Bourgeois says the recession has boosted application numbers for two-year graduate programs, as laid-off workers re-train or ride out the downturn in class, but the university has set a target of 500 additional students.

In the absence of provincial government incentives, northern institutions are trying new approaches to attract students. Northern College’s strategies include new program development, staggered enrolment and the expansion of popular niche programs.

The college has become more nimble in response to the economy and laid-off workers who want to re-enter the workforce, Gibbons said. Traditionally, programs begin in September, but the college is offering new programs at various points in the year to meet market demand for specific skills.

College bureaucracy is built around the September to April school year, so the shift to January, March or April entry points “requires a huge shift in focus and thinking,” and it’s too early to tell whether the change has addressed the issue of excess capacity. But staggered enrolment helps the college make better use of facilities, Gibbons said.

Northern is also capitalizing on niche fields where the college has established itself as a first choice for students. At the Porcupine campus, health sciences are a centre of excellence and demand is actually higher than the school can meet.

Creating a parallel health sciences program at a different campus isn’t necessarily an option, since the success of a program comes from a particular combination of community resources, teaching staff and technology investments that aren’t easy to duplicate. Instead, administrators are considering eliminating under-enrolled programs at Porcupine to allow the expansion of health sciences.

Laurentian University has ramped up recruitment activities by redesigning the university website, a key element in marketing to potential students.

The university is also collaborating with other institutions. Students who earn a diploma from Georgian College in Barrie, Ont., can go on to a degree through Laurentian. Alternatively, students can complete a Laurentian degree from start to finish at the Georgian campus.

Expanded recruitment strategies at the university include more advertising, retention efforts to prevent undergraduates from dropping out early on and scholarships and bursaries that target francophone and aboriginal students.

“We’ve done almost a complete re-thinking of the university in the last year,” Bourgeois said. Such measures are costly for a small institution, he added.

“We could move more aggressively with more assistance from the province.”

– The Canadian Press