Post-secondary Schools Brace for Impact of COVID-19 Second Wave

Last updated June 29, 2022

Official figures shared with CourseCompare show a nine per cent drop in international student enrolment as the majority of Canadian colleges and universities extend online education into the winter term.

For colleges and universities across Canada, COVID-19 brought complex variables to fall enrolment and growing concern about falling revenue as international students were prevented from entering the country. The winter term may prove to be even more uncertain as provinces contemplate more stringent measures to combat the deadly virus as it continues to spread.

Added to the challenges facing post-secondary schools this winter is that many students, often learning in isolation either on campus, alone in dorms, or at home with less than adequate connectivity, are struggling to adapt to virtual learning. Colleges and universities such as McGill University in Montreal are weighing how best to extend in-class learning for January, not just for faculties with in-person lab requirements, but also for seminars and lectures too, even as urban jurisdictions such as Toronto and Montreal see increasing infection rates of COVID-19.

Many of those students seeking more in-class opportunities are international students paying more in tuition than their domestic counterparts. In the fall, international students who were not already in Canada faced the uncertainty of starting their studies from home. With border restrictions still in place in the middle of September, schools were forecasting double-digit drops in international enrolment, especially those that depend heavily on revenue from these students who often pay four times the tuition that domestic students do.

But when the federal government opened the door for students abroad to enter the country on October 20, the picture became brighter. For some, projected enrolment losses from international students have been lower than expected. CourseCompare has calculated a nine per cent average drop in international student enrolment based on official figures shared by more than 50 colleges and universities across Canada. Many others, however, have indicated they are still compiling and updating their data.

On the domestic front, Ontario, B.C., Quebec and Atlantic Canada saw higher than expected enrolment as Canadian students and adult learners flocked to programs as the unemployment rate remained high. But how even increased enrollment from a mix of full-time and part-time enrollment will affect institutions’ bottom lines remains, in many cases, to be seen.

The return to class in winter 2021

 As cases of COVID-19 continue to rise across the country, schools are contemplating how they will manage into the winter. Many have said online course delivery will continue through April. Some, such as Carleton University in Ottawa and Bishop’s University in Quebec, have already declared later than normal starts to the winter term — delaying classes on average an additional week to give everyone a more extended break.

Brock University in St. Catharines was one of the first in September to declare it would continue with primarily online classes for the full academic year, extending the academic model through the winter term from January to April.

In August, Dalhousie University indicated that the majority of its winter term would be conducted online. It continues to share information on that in memos to students, faculty and staff. The university’s most recent memo was on November 6, noting that most courses will continue to be online in the winter term, with some in-person instruction either for accreditation purposes or due to experiential components. Students are advised to consult the university’s academic timetable to see whether their classes are online or in-person.

At McGill University in Montreal, winter 2021 courses will be held primarily online but with “enhanced in-person teaching activities, where possible,” with priorities given to critical lab and clinical activities known as Tier 1 classes and requirements for graduating students. McGill is also trying to provide in-class learning for Tier 2 seminar courses, tutorials, and lectures because “many students have told us that they are struggling with learning entirely online,” according to the school’s winter semester FAQ page.

Camosun College in Victoria, B.C., has indicated that courses that can be delivered remotely will continue throughout the winter term 2021. In contrast, course components that demand face-to-face instruction or require special equipment will be “delivered in a way that is safe for students and employees.”

The revenue hits keep coming

Despite some bright spots, most schools faced a significant revenue drop — either purely from a decline in enrolment or as facility rentals, parking, and other revenue sources fell drastically due to cancelled events and work from home measures.

In early October, a StatsCan report on the impact of COVID-19 on Canadian universities was released, showing that post-secondary institutions could be facing potential losses ranging from $377 million (-0.8%) to $3.4 billion (-7.5%) during the 2020/2021 academic year. The report showed that the number of student permits issued from June to August 2020 fell by over half (-58%) compared with 2019.

Hardest hit

With more hands-on practical learning, community colleges were among those most affected this fall, including Peterborough, Ont.’s Fleming College, where enrolment is down 30 per cent for the fall semester. The most significant gap is from international students limited by travel restrictions. That has affected course offerings, with about 30 per cent of courses not being offered right now. In Hamilton, Mohawk College has projected a $50 million revenue shortfall caused by a drop in enrolment. However, the gap was not as big as expected, with enrolment down 11 per cent.

Cambrian College in Sudbury reports that international enrolment is down 19.8 per cent for fall 2020, and domestic enrolment dipped 1.5 per cent putting its total tuition revenue down 13.4 per cent or $5,169,809.

While the University of Regina saw a reduction of more than 50 per cent in first term (new) international students and a 6.5 per cent decrease overall in international students, the university saw an overall one per cent increase in enrolment compared to last year. In 2019-20, international students comprised almost 20 per cent of the university’s student population. This fall the university also announced it wouldn’t increase tuition for fall 2020 through to the end of the 2021 semester. The decision came as a reaction to Statistics Canada’s National Tuition report which showed tuition for postsecondary students in Saskatchewan has increased 5.7 per cent from fall 2019 to fall 2020.

Other schools, such as Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ont., saw domestic growth of 14.6 per cent but a decline in international enrolment of 4.3 per cent. In 2019, the Christian university reduced tuition by 42 per cent to $9,800 for domestic undergrad students, a move they have committed to until 2023-2024, which is supported in large part by donor funding.

About 315,000 students registered in Quebec universities, representing a total enrolment increase of 1.3 per cent compared to the fall term of 2019. Growth is mainly attributable to part-time registrants. Women are in the majority of those registered for study.

In Victoria, Camosun College has about 1,400 international students enrolled this fall, down from 2,100 the previous year, with more than half from India and China. As of the end of October, about one-third of Centennial College’s 14,000 international students were still overseas awaiting immigration approval to study in Canada, according to The Globe and Mail.

Many colleges and universities that have a high percentage of international students were also at financial risk prior to the pandemic as they were running deficits despite drawing students from abroad that pay tuition that is often four times that of a Canadian student.

According to a report from the Higher Education Strategy Association, schools such as Concordia University in Montreal are more vulnerable when you combine their high international student population — Concordia’s was 21.8 per cent of total enrolment in 2019-2020 — with running deficits.

Like many schools in the fall of 2020, Concordia saw a decline in international student tuition, particularly at the graduate level as students faced the high cost of grad studies while learning remotely. As of October 22, Concordia was projecting a deficit of between $28 million to $45 million or 5 to 8 per cent of its operating budget. Other schools, such as Cape Breton University, draw 65 per cent of their students from abroad and are looking at a $6 million deficit but are using reserves to address the $16.6 million loss of revenue.

Some schools have taken measures to cut costs along the way including reductions in staffing. In a review of 50 colleges and universities, CourseCompare also found that planned budget cuts since March 2020 showed 2,749 lost jobs (2,093 full-time, 656 temporary layoffs). Some of the layoffs were planned before the pandemic. Some schools have also implemented reduced work hours for staff.

Significant drop in the number of international students

In Quebec, the data from the body monitoring university enrolment in that province shows that there were just over 44,000 international students in Quebec universities in the fall of 2020, a decrease of 8.6 per cent compared to fall 2019. The decline is exceptionally high in the first year (13.4%), according to Bureau de Coopération Interuniversitaire (BCI).

The share of international students in the total student body also fell compared to last year, from 15.6 per cent to 14 per cent. Nearly one in seven students attending Quebec universities is not a Canadian citizen or permanent resident.

The BCI noted that to understand the variations in student numbers, it is necessary to consider each school because the situation varies from one establishment to another.

For example, at the Universite de Sherbrooke, international enrollment for fall 2020 is down 28.8 per cent. According to a university spokesperson, the school postponed several international students’ admission when it was impossible to set up distance learning modalities either because there were too few students or because of a “pedagogical approach based on face-to-face interactions and practical training.”

Colleges and universities with programs that offer hands-on programs for everything from acting to nursing have been challenged to find ways to present courses either online, in-person with distancing measures, or in some cases not offer courses for the time being.

Some positive news in areas of British Columbia

At both the UBC Vancouver and UBC Okanagan, total enrolment in full-time equivalents is up 2.4 per cent this year compared to last year, with 53,845 students enrolled this year.

For UBC Vancouver, domestic undergraduate enrolment is up 3.7 per cent this year compared to last year, with 27,569 domestic undergraduate students currently enrolled. While international undergraduate enrolment at UBC Vancouver has declined by 1.8 percent compared to the previous year—with 9,608 undergraduate students enrolled this year—enrolment is still up one percent from 2018 and up 8.5 percent from 2017.

At UBC Okanagan, domestic undergraduate enrolment is up 5.7 per cent compared to 2019, with 6,973 students currently enrolled. In contrast, domestic undergraduate enrolment increased by 4.2 per cent from 2018 to 2019 and 4.9 per cent from 2017 to 2018. International undergraduate enrolment is also up 9.1 per cent this year compared to last year, with 1,664 students enrolled this year. In contrast, international undergraduate enrolment increased by 20.8 per cent from 2018 to 2019 and 29.7 per cent from 2017 to 2018.

In Kamloops, B.C., Thompson Rivers University had prepared for the worst, with international student enrolment typically making up about 17 per cent of its total student population. However, total enrolment is down 8 per cent from fall 2019. Within that number, there are fewer domestic students (-2 per cent), and international student numbers are down 14 per cent, with Thompson Rivers University projecting a $3 million deficit for the year.

Compared to September 1 of last year, domestic student headcount is down overall by 7 per cent at Vancouver Island University. International student headcount at the school in Nanaimo was down 31 per cent as of September 1, 2020, compared to September 1, 2019.

Pockets of domestic enrolment increase in Ontario

McMaster University in Hamilton saw a spike in domestic enrolment this fall. McMaster declared its first-year class the largest in its 133-year history based on its final fall enrolment numbers.

While Dalhousie University does not report official enrolment figures until December 1, on Sept. 22, the University’s President, Deep Saini, confirmed that as of Sept. 20 overall enrolment had increased 3.8 per cent over the same time last year, with a 4.8 per cent increase in domestic students and a 0.6 per cent increase in international students.

CourseCompare will continue to monitor Canadian post-secondary institutions’ plans as more official data becomes available in late 2020 and early 2021.

Note: CourseCompare contacted 150 public and private colleges and universities across Canada. Several institutions declined to participate or did not respond.


Jennifer Brown

Jennifer Brown is a journalist and communications professional with extensive experience creating engaging content internally and externally for various B2B and consumer audiences. As a journalist, she has written about and interviewed leaders in the health care, education, legal, enterprise technology and cannabis sectors.

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