Universities, college bracing for empty classrooms this fall

Post-secondary institutions in Ottawa are struggling to plan for the fall term as the uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic continues to threaten enrolment.

Schools look to discourage foreign, domestic students alike from taking gap year

A lone student makes her way across the nearly deserted University of Ottawa campus in March. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

Post-secondary institutions in Ottawa are struggling to plan for the fall term as the uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic continues to threaten enrolment.

Universities and colleges still don't know whether public health officials will deem it safe for students to return to the classroom in September, or whether international travel bans will be lifted in time for foreign students to make their way to Ottawa.

CBC requested interviews with Carleton University, the University of Ottawa and Algonquin College about their plans for the fall. All three declined, sending statements instead.

"Looking to the fall, it is difficult to imagine a complete lifting of physical distancing measures that would allow the return of large gatherings in confined spaces, as well as a complete lifting of international travel restrictions," Carleton wrote in its statement.

"In making all these decisions, we will continue to carefully follow government regulations and the guidelines of public health authorities ... Carleton is engaged in planning for a broad array of scenarios."

I think enrolment is the big question mark as we head into the fall.​​​​​- Travis Shaw, DBRS Morningstar

Algonquin College said it's still accepting both domestic and international applications for its fall term, as usual.

"Algonquin College continues to follow governmental and Public Health guidance on all operational matters. Our Academic teams are diligently preparing for the Fall term and making plans for our new and returning students," the college wrote.

The University of Ottawa said it's working to "find responsive, flexible solutions to allow both our international and Canadian students to study in the program of their choice in September.... We hope to be able to welcome our students on campus but we are cognizant that public health directives may still not allow an in-person format in the fall."

Saint Paul University in Ottawa has already announced it's prepared to offer all its courses online this fall. 

Professors making plans for online learning

According to one University of Ottawa professor who spoke to CBC, faculty are doing everything they can to move courses online. 

"The general challenge, not unique to international students, is how do we make sure that those students don't take a gap year, because we rely on their tuition fees in order to support the operations of the university in the first place," said Patti Tamara Lenard, an associate professor at the U of O's graduate school of public and international affairs.

Patti Tamara Lenard is an associate professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa. (Supplied by Patti Tamara Lenard)

"How can we offer a product that is high enough quality that students will be motivated to start — or continue — their studies in September regardless of where they live?"

Lenard said her faculty is in active and ongoing discussions about how to make the most of online learning, including bringing in policy experts who wouldn't usually be available to speak to students, but who might be willing to now since they're stuck at home during the pandemic. 

"It's hard even to explain the amount of work that is going into this," she said.

Lenard said the faculty is operating under the assumption that public health officials likely won't deem it safe for students to return to class in September.

She said action plans are being drawn up to allow students to maintain their physical distance in the classroom, including the possibility of rotating the days of the week when they can attend class.

Lenard said approximately 10 to 15 per cent of students in her graduate program are international students, most of them from China.

Financial hit if students don't return

One analyst who spoke to CBC said universities and colleges could take a financial hit if students aren't back in class, and if those international students aren't allowed to travel.

"I think enrolment is the big question mark as we head into the fall," said Travis Shaw of DBRS Morningstar, a global credit rating agency that specializes in large institutions including universities.

"From a financial perspective, what we're concerned about in terms of university credit quality is how materially are institutions impacted in September in terms of enrolment, because that is the key revenue driver," Shaw said. 

Travis Shaw is the senior vice-president of public finance at DBRS Morningstar, a global credit rating agency. (Supplied by Travis Shaw)

"If [campuses] were still to be closed in September, that would have a fairly notable impact, and may discourage first-year enrolment, particularly international students if the travel restrictions remain in place, but maybe to a certain extent domestic students, as well," Shaw said.

Shaw said many Ontario universities have seen an uptick in international enrolment in recent years, since tuition fees are capped for domestic students.

DBRS Morningstar estimates about 20 per cent of the student body at the U of O is from out of country. Algonquin College's website says more than 4,000 international students from 130 countries are enrolled at the school. Carleton University says it had 4,625 international students enrolled in 2019.

"The primary area of growth to deal with rising cost pressures at universities has been to expand international enrolment. So we see that ranging anywhere from the single digits, six, seven per cent, to well in excess of 20 per cent of enrolment [in Ontario.]," Shaw said.

"So for some institutions that are much more reliant on international enrolment, they're potentially more vulnerable to a near-term shock."

Shaw said his agency expects that hit to be temporary, and for enrolment to stabilize when the pandemic passes.

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