On Campus

The Interview: David Foot

One of Canada’s leading economists says universities should prepare for declining enrolment, not growth

Earlier this week I spoke with David Foot, University of Toronto economics professor who is best known as the author of Boom, Bust & Echo: How to Profit from the Coming Demographic Shift., one of the best-selling and most influential Canadian books of the past decade. You can listen to our conversation here. (Note that I had some technical difficulties, as they say — my device that records directly from a telephone headset was buggy, so I had to record from speaker phone. So the audio is a bit rough at the start. But sit tight: sometime before 1:00, it improves.)

So what did Foot have to say about how demographic changes are going to impact higher education?

“Right at the moment colleges and universities across Canada are stretched to their gills, as it were, for space,” says Foot. The number of “Echo” generation births, according to Foot, peaked in 1991, and the last of that group is now in the higher education system or soon will be. But after 1991 birth rates began to decline. That means we’re about to enter a period where Canada’s university-age population will be falling, not rising.

“We know that there’s a smaller cohort of 17 year olds and 18 years olds [coming], and so we know that university and post secondary enrolments will gradually decline in the first decade of the new millennium.”

Some areas, such as the Atlantic provinces, are already experiencing a declining population of university-age people. However, a number of university administrators have predicted rising enrolments. Two years ago, the presidents of the Greater Toronto Area universities said that there was an urgent need for new funding and possibly even the construction of a new university in the region, to cope with what they expect will be a boom in university enrolment in the GTA, due to a growing GTA population combined with rising university participation rates. (See our stories on the subject here and here.) The participation rate measures the percentage of young people choosing to pursue higher education. If participation rates increase, meaning that a higher percentage of young people choose to go to university, enrolment could continue to increase even in the face of a declining population of young people.

Foot, however, says he’s “putting a caution” on the GTA presidents’ assumptions. “They’re not aware of the demographics as well as they might be.”

He questions in particular the assumption that participation rates will rise — and he argues that if we get into a situation where universities in the GTA are crowded while campuses in the rest of Ontario and Canada are thinning out, we should look to make better use of those underused universities. Will it make sense, asks Foot, “to build more buildings in the GTA when there are buildings in Sudbury and Windsor and Peterborough that are not being fully utilized?”

“It’s a little bit of I’m going to look after myself jack and to hell with everybody else, and that’s not necessarily good public policy from the government’s point of view. I think some exchange programs with some of these other universities that are likely to have declining enrolments would be a much better public policy perspective.”

University participation rates have increased sharply over the past generation, and many assume the trend will continue. Foot says it’s unlikely. “Past trends embody the incredible increase in the participation of women in post secondary education, and as we know there are now more women than men in those age groups in our post secondary system.” Those looking for participation rates to increase can point to the opportunity to fully engage populations currently underrepresented in higher education, such as the disabled or native Canadians. However, says Foot, “the important point here is that women are half the population. So if you get a rise in participation rates in half the population, you’re going to see an impact on enrolments. But if you’re looking at the disabled or native peoples as the next group to raise the participation rates, disabled peoples are less than 1 per cent, the native population is less than 4 per cent. You’re not going to get the same sort of impact of the increase in participation from much smaller groups.”

Listen to the audio of the full interview here.

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