The number of full-time students attending Nova Scotia’s 11 universities this year dropped by 2.9%, for a total of 39,619 students. The decline was more pronounced in this province than for the Atlantic region as a whole where full-time enrolment was down only 1.3%.

However, the number of international students who pay more than double the tuition fees Canadians do declined by 10.8%, which will create financial impacts at most but not all Nova Scotia institutions.

Preliminary enrolment numbers were released Friday by the Association of Atlantic Universities (AAU).

“Not a surprise” is how AAU Chair Allister Surette, Recteur, Université Sainte-Anne, summarized the declines in domestic and international enrolments.  “However,” noted M. Surette in a news release, “the decline in domestic students is not nearly as significant as initially projected. In fact, many of our universities reported incremental increases in total enrolment.”

As reported in September by the Halifax Examiner, total enrolment grew 3.8% at Dalhousie University to include 17,948 full-time students. Mount Saint Vincent University and the Atlantic School of Theology also saw increases in their student body. Everywhere else, full-time enrolments were hit by significant declines in both the number of international students (down 10.8% across Nova Scotia) and fewer first-year students (down 9.7%  across the province).

International students

National and international travel restrictions and the temporary closure of visa processing offices around the world seriously affected the numbers of international students. Hardest hit was Cape Breton University, where 1,100 fewer international and first-year students are attending this year. The total CBU enrolment is 3,705 full-time students, a drop of 25.8%. CBU president David Dingwall estimated the loss of revenue to the university from international students at $16.6 million for 2020. Last year, an influx of international students resulted in the first population growth in Cape Breton in two decades.

Research conducted by the AAU among graduating international students in 2017 revealed that 65% would like to stay in the region following their graduation. The AAU expressed gratitude to the federal government’s recent decision to ease travel restrictions on international students so more can begin returning to campus starting next month.

“Our universities are establishing plans to welcome international students back to campus safely and are fully equipped to place them in the required 14-day quarantine upon their arrival,” said M.Surette. “The importance of visa students to the internationalization of our campuses as well as their cultural, social and economic impacts in communities across the region cannot be overstated.

Falling full-time enrolments at most universities

The double whammy of fewer international students combined with fewer first year students led to declines in full-time enrolment at most Nova Scotia campuses. 

Numbers are down 33.8% at Acadia University in Wolfville, down 25.8% at Cape Breton University, and down 16.2% at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax. Université Sainte-Anne saw 12.2% fewer students and Saint Mary’s University was off by 3.6%, mostly as a result of 12.3% fewer international students. St. Francis Xavier welcomed 3.2% fewer students and enrolment at University of King’s College was off by 1.1%.

While only Dal, the Mount, and AST saw enrolment grow, the statistics collected by the Association of Atlantic Universities show a big jump in people attending university part-time. Across the Atlantic region, part-time enrolment grew by 19.6% or 2,438 students. In Nova Scotia, part-time student enrolment grew by 22%.

This may be because people who have lost jobs during the pandemic are heading back to school to retrain. The president of the Association of Atlantic Universities offered another interpretation. “One could hypothesize that many first-year students opted to go part-time because of travel restrictions and uncertainty about their adaptability to virtual learning versus traditional in classroom learning,” said Surette. 

Tuition fees are a major source of revenue for universities. At universities where there is a significant drop in enrolment, unless they can reduce their operating costs it’s likely the provincial government will be asked to come to their financial rescue. Again. Studies to combine or reduce the number of universities in the province have generally gone nowhere with one notable exception: the merger of the Nova Scotia Agricultural College with Dalhousie University.


Jennifer Henderson is a freelance journalist and retired CBC News reporter.

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  1. So far there has been covid funding for non-profits, small business, landlords, municipalities, big business, oil companies and on and on and on. But there’s been no covid funding for universities.

    Interesting that the word “again” implies that an institution that fulfills many societal roles – 1 in 40 Canadians attends a university every year – shouldn’t have any expectation of any support during these oh-so-weird times when pretty much every other institution in the country has been the recipient of some form of government Covid largesse.

  2. “At universities where there is a significant drop in enrolment, unless they can reduce their operating costs it’s likely the provincial government will be asked to come to their financial rescue. Again.”

    Seriously? We have this fiction in Canada, and particularly in the Maritimes, that our post-secondary institutions are publicly funded. Funding formulas have changed over the past two decades, greatly reducing public financial support of our universities, which have been asked to ‘fend for themselves by raising tuition, creating new fees, renting campus space, and reducing operating costs by reducing numbers of support staff and paying them poorly. Education is supposed to be a social good, a key element of personal development, and a post-secondary degree essential for most careers. But, when our underfunded NS universities that have been staring down the barrel of a demographic crisis, but which are also major drivers of our regional economy, come looking for needed financial support thanks to a pandemic, this is to be dismissed? We have been fortunate in that most post-secondary institutions in NS are used to operating in a harsh financial environment having done so for a long time and are prepared to deal with the relatively ‘modest’ shortfall in revenue over the short-term through contingency funds and borrowing thanks to low interest rates. If the current COVID situation and its attendant economic nose-dive continue for another year, however, many of these institutions will be in a really difficult position. Should the government let them fail? Or, should the government step in ‘again’? Aside from some strange, back-room deals struck between the McNeil government and a couple of these institutions over the past few years, I am hard pressed to identify any sustained or systematic government effort to address the financial difficulties of post-secondary institutions in NS in the early 21st century. As such, I am not sure to what the author refers by the term ‘again’. Maybe various provincial governments creating a situation in which the only way to address fiscal shortfalls is to raise tuition and fees, and then preventing them from doing so by freezing tuition increases? That has worked quite well to date.

    “Studies to combine or reduce the number of universities in the province have generally gone nowhere with one notable exception: the merger of the Nova Scotia Agricultural College with Dalhousie University.”
    Are you referring to the O’Neil Report? It suggested that this was one of a number of options, but noted that up-front costs would be quite high, particularly if multiple institutions were merged, and it was unclear who would bear these costs. It noted that, in the long-run, unless the provincial government and universities worked together to address demographic decline, improve student bursary programs, and entice students from other parts of the country and the world to enroll in NS universities/post-secondary institutions, any merger would be irrelevant. In short, the recommendations in the report were a lot more complex than represented in this article. The report is now a decade old and the financial situation, pre-COVID, had generally improved at many post-secondary institutions thanks to international student recruitment, cost-cutting, and hard work in general. As the article makes clear, COVID has put paid to this strategy for the present, and quite possibly for the near-future as well.