On Campus

University enrolment up, as grads return to school

Recession drives the biggest spike in enrolment since 2003

Despite the shaky job market for university grads during the recession, or because of it, new enrolment figures show about 38,000 more students enrolled in Canadian universities this fall over last.

About 870,000 full-time students enrolled this year, an increase of 29,000 undergraduates and 9,000 graduate students from last year, according to figures released by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada.

Herb O’Heron, a senior adviser at the AUCC, says it’s the biggest increase in enrolment since 2003 and the recession is driving demand for spots.

“Part of it is the recognition of the value of a degree,” he said. “Even in the midst of a recession, the jobs for university graduates continue to rise.”

Students and professors say they are encouraged by the display of faith in higher education, but remain skeptical about whether universities can deliver what they promise.

The spike in enrolment is occurring as cash-strapped governments make cuts to already underfunded universities, which, they say, degrades the quality of education for students who continue to pay sky high tuition fees.

James Turk, executive director of Canadian Association of University Teachers says while the government recognizes that education is key to economic recovery, it is not placing enough emphasis on funding.

To reach the funding level seen in the 1980s, when there were fewer university students, the government would need to increase funding by $4.2 billion a year, Turk said.

Meanwhile, as enrolment increases, universities cram students into the seats and aisles of already packed lecture halls, which degrades the quality of education students receive for their money.

The AUCC found the biggest spike, 7.1 per cent, in enrolment at the graduate level, compared to 4.1 per cent at the undergraduate level.

Katherine Giroux-Bougard, national chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students says many disillusioned job seekers return to school and take on bigger debt loads.

The increase of graduate students during the recession contributes to an increase in the number of students turning to loans.

Giroux-Bougard said student debts can have negative repercussions on the economy because students in debt are less likely to graduate, and to start a family, and purchase homes and cars.

“When we’re looking at rebuilding our economy, at getting out of this recession high debt loads are going to make that more difficult,” she said.

James Cote, a professor of sociology at the University of Western Ontario who studies academia said the increase in graduate students can also be attributed to government pressure on universities to increase enrolment in grad programs by 50 per cent.

Turk added that expanding graduate enrolment is one way universities attempt to recoup funding because government funding is higher for graduate students than undergrads.

Number crunching by the AUCC indicated that “in the last 12 months there have been more than 60,000 new jobs for university graduates, while there were 390,000 fewer for jobs for those without higher education.”

Cote said the dismal job market feeds credentialism, meaning employers can push up the credentials necessary for students to get a foothold in the job market.

“The MA now replaces the honours BA in many fields,” he said. “A lot of people get the BA to get themselves in the running, but then they find that they need more,” he said.

O’Heron attributed this phenomenon to the fact that the fastest growing occupations require the most education-such as healthcare, science and engineering.

Terry Power, president of employment firm Randstad Canada says fields that require higher education have seen better employment opportunities through the downturn.

He said the unemployment rate in professional sectors, especially information technology, engineering and highly specialized fields run at about half the rate of the general unemployment rate.

But Turk says there’s no evidence in the general job market that higher credentials are necessary.

“I think the reason that employers are able to get employees with these credentials is because of the bad job market.”

Now they can require a MA when 20 years ago a BA would do, but it’s not clear how necessary those degrees are, he said.

“We have this curious phenomenon going on where you need more credentials to be able to get jobs but the quality of the jobs and the amount you use your education in the job may actually be diminishing.”

– The Canadian Press

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.