“A number of developments over the past decade have put an increased strain on the operational financial health of the university,” Robert Hache, president of Laurentian said in a statement.
In fact, Laurentian has long been aware that the number of high school grads in northern Ontario has been shrinking. Last summer, university spokesman Shaun Malley told the Sudbury Star:
“We are experiencing, due to changing demographics, a decrease in our university-aged student population in Northern Ontario, which means smaller graduating classes in our high schools across the region and less students heading to university from our local catchment area.”
With fewer potential domestic students, Laurentian turned to international recruitment, pledging to enroll 1,000 students. For a school with 9,000 students, that many international students would have added $25 million to its coffers – enough to save it from financial ruin.
Unfortunately, the international dream proved elusive. Post-secondary institutions across the country were following the same strategy, so competition was intense. Not surprisingly, international students want to go to Canada’s big cities like Vancouver and Toronto, not to a small town in northern Ontario.
Laurentian lost 117 students during the 2018 Saudi debacle. A big university can easily absorb that hit, but for Laurentian is meant a revenue shortfall of $3 million.
Malley said last August that it expected enroll between 500 and 600 international students for this year’s remote learning under Covid. That’s only half the international enrollment it was hoping to achieve.
Despite the financial difficulties, Laurentian plunged ahead with campus capital improvements. In 2015, it announced that it was allocating $51 million to refurbish and revitalize buildings across the campus. When it should have been closing facilities, it was spending like there was no tomorrow.
Last fall, the school announced a money-saving plan to suspend admissions to 17 programs that only had a total of 49 students. That’s less than three students per major. Unfortunately, it was too little, too late.
It’s a cautionary tale for post-secondary institutions across Canada. Several, such as Seneca College in Toronto and Cape Breton University in Nova Scotia, are far more reliant on international tuition revenues than Laurentian. About a quarter of the students at Seneca are international – but represent 40 percent of tuition monies because they pay higher fees. Cape Breton faces similar domestic demographic challenges to Laurentian and its international enrolment is now more than half of its total. These post-secondary institutions are highly dependent on international students to keep the lights on.
Laurentian president Robert Hache says he’s “optimistic” about the future but it’s hard to see why. Few domestic or international students are going to be beating down the doors to enroll in a school that’s declared bankruptcy.
The Laurentian mess is a black eye for Canada as a whole, one that may make it more difficult to recruit international students to this country.