COVID-19 takes toll on N.S. university enrolment

·3 min read

When it comes to the effects of COVID-19 on Nova Scotia universities, not all schools are created equal.

The Association of Atlantic Universities released its survey of preliminary enrolments as of Oct. 1 on Friday. While some schools have taken a notable hit, others are holding close to, or even exceeding, figures from the same time last year.

Overall full-time enrolment, which combines undergraduate and graduate figures, for Nova Scotia universities is down 2.9 per cent.

The effects of COVID-19 have been most pronounced at Cape Breton University (down 25.8 per cent), NSCAD University (down 16.2 per cent) and Université Sainte-Anne (down 12.2 per cent).

Gordon MacInnis, vice-president of finance and operations at CBU, said officials there knew coming into this semester that things would be difficult and they took steps to brace for it, including scaling back operations and tapping into an operating reserve.

He said those efforts have covered all losses except for about $9 million so far.

Some bright spots

The survey said overall full-time enrolment is up at Dalhousie University (3.8 per cent), Mount Saint Vincent University (3.3 per cent) and the Atlantic School of Theology (44 students compared to 33 at the same time last year).

In a statement, Dalhousie spokesperson Janet Bryson said the school had prepared for student numbers to be greatly affected coming into the fall. By late September, however, those fears were allayed.

"While there are potential risks and uncertainties related to enrolment and retention throughout the school year, the university is extremely pleased with these preliminary figures, which is an accomplishment shared by everyone in our community, faculty, students and staff."

Although some schools have struggled with full-time enrolment this year, part-time enrolment is up almost across the board.

Part-time numbers jump

CBU saw a 165.6 per cent increase in combined enrolment for part-time undergraduate and graduate students.

The numbers were also way up at the University of King's College (73.1 per cent), St. Francis Xavier University (28.3 per cent), NSCAD (14.6 per cent) and Acadia University (11.5 per cent).

Restrictions on travel in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19 have had a particularly strong effect on international students, and Friday's numbers reflect that.

Enrolment for full-time visa students is down at every university in the province with the exceptions of Mount Saint Vincent (up 6.7 per cent), Dalhousie (up 1.4 per cent) and the Atlantic School of Theology (three students compared to one last year).

CBU (27.9 per cent), Sainte-Anne (22 per cent), NSCAD (17.5 per cent) and Saint Mary's University (12.3 per cent) all experienced double-digit decreases in full-time visa student enrolment.

MacInnis said officials are waiting to see what numbers look like for the winter term. Despite the losses CBU has faced so far, officials aren't hitting the panic button yet, he said.

The federal government announced earlier this week that Nova Scotia universities would be able to begin accepting international students again next month, once additional health precautions are in place. It's hoped a return of international students and part-term students taking more courses will help the bottom line.

"That is literally a multimillion-dollar question for us right now," said MacInnis, who praised staff for their efforts to transition to an online learning model.

First-year enrolment plunges

One area where all universities took a hit was in full-time first-year enrolment. That was down 9.7 per cent for the province, with the biggest declines being at NSCAD (43.9 per cent) and CBU (41.3 per cent).

In a news release, Allister Surette, chair of the Association of Atlantic Univerisities and president of Université Sainte-Anne, said the first-year numbers are particularly worrisome.

"This will have a significant impact on enrolment and institutional sustainability over the next three-to-four years," he said.