24 July 2010

Inaccurately accurate university enrolment trends

This past week, CBC Radio’s Morning Show interviewed Reeta Tremblay, Memorial University vice president (academic) about a Statistics Canada report on university enrolment for the period 2005-06 to 2008-09.

They did the interview – as host Jeff Gilhooley said in the introduction – based on CBC’s belief that enrolment was  going up.

Now where they got that idea is a mystery since the Statistics Canada figures – taken directly from enrolment figures at the province’s only university – have shown the trending consistently in every annual report they’ve delivered for the past three or four years. The trend is unmistakeable:  enrolment at Memorial University declined in the period.

In fact, the trending was so clear and undeniable that some of us wondered how the two foreign experts who delivered the report on Grenfell autonomy could have possible come up with their bullshit ideas about increasing enrolment when the trends (and the potential student population) were headed downward).

Turns out, those of us who questioned their report were right since even the Old Man himself had to abandon his 2007 election commitment in light of the facts.

But that’s another story.

The crowd at CBC must have been a bit surprised that Reeta Tremblay didn’t actually dispute the Statistics Canada numbers.  The CBC web story has a lede saying Tremblay contradicted Statistics Canada but the fact is she didn’t.  Tremblay just said that the more recent figure for 2009/10 would show a small increase in enrolment.

What Tremblay did do, though, is give credit to aggressive recruiting both at the graduate and undergraduate level for the change in direction. Where to begin untangling that foolishness?

Well, firstly, Tremblay might want to credit the recession with the uptick.  Once the rest of us see the full set of numbers, it might confirm a usual trend, namely that some people who get laid off go back to school. If there is an uptick in Memorial’s enrolment, the recession might have helped a wee bit.

Secondly, and more importantly, that increase in graduate enrolment actually is a mess in and of itself, as Reeta well knows.

Bond Papers readers will recall the sorry tale last March of grad studies dean Noreen Golfman trying desperately to paint lipstick on the pig of a problem she has with fellowships for her academic charges.

Beginning in the fall of 2010 – a period neither Reeta nor the crowd at Stats Can yet has figures for – new grad students won’t be getting any financial help from the university in the form of fellowships valued at $12,000 to $15,000.

The won’t be getting the cash because the senior administration at the university  - including coughreetacough – were forced to freeze the budget on financial assistance to masters and doctoral students in order to cope with a $2.0 million shortfall in the budget for that financial aid.

The budget is short because someone or some group of someones allowed grad school enrolment to balloon by 60% in a single year.  Interestingly that balloon came in the year Reeta cited as one that shows the university enrolment is up. 

But anyway, as your humble e-scribbler put it in March,

Freezing spending is not, as Golfman claimed, “sending the right signal about being fiscally responsible.” Rather it sends a signal that someone or some group of someones was so utterly incompetent that they let the situation develop in the first place. The university administration had to freeze the thing in place or face catastrophe.

Now this isn’t a big issue because you read it here.  It’s a big issue.  It’s such a big issue that…well… let’s let the head of the university professors association tell you, as he told people back in March:

"It means that it will be very difficult to attract graduate students to the university this coming year because when you're a graduate student you apply to different universities and see who is going to offer you the best package," [faculty association president Ross] Klein says. "It affects the stature of the university because the graduate programs are one of the things that raise the stature."

So while the issue about enrolment trends at the province’s only university may show an uptick in 2009/10, we do know that one of the causes for that increase produced a corresponding freeze in financial support for graduate students.

That is a much bigger story than the one CBC had.

And, in case, you missed it, the deeper story is a tale of managerial incompetence, not the rosy yarn of super-effective recruiting that the academic vice-president offered up to Jeff Gilhooley one morning last week.

- srbp -