Is this a sign of UFV's enrolment surge?

After years of stagnant domestic growth, UFV gets an influx of students—will it have space and resources for everyone?

The University of the Fraser Valley was in a bit of a rut.

Last year, as the university’s executives sat down last year to plot their institution’s future , they would have seen a divergence

Despite the Fraser Valley’s swelling population, enrolment by local students was broadly headed in the opposite direction. That suggested a problem for a university built to serve the educational aspirations of local Fraser Valley residents.

To reverse that trend, UFV has created an ambitious new plan that it hopes will boost both local and international enrolment. And there are already signs of progress toward the plans targets for thousands more students on campus.

But it’s one thing to attract more students. As the valley’s local school districts have found, it’s another to have the space to educate them and the resources to support them. And that’s especially the case when it comes to international students who cross the globe for a Canadian education.

The challenge

Between 2022 and 2030, the college-age population of the Fraser Valley is expected to increase by 17%. (Although those population projections should be viewed as conservative, since they don’t factor in the impact of changes to house-building rules that seem likely to increase growth at a much faster speed.)

So UFV needs to increase its domestic enrolment by that same figure if it wants to keep up with its mandate to provide education opportunities to Fraser Valley.

But keeping up with the projected population growth is a goal that is both modest and ambitious for the valley’s university.

“Initially, it may seem easy to achieve [full-time enrolment] growth that matches demographic growth,” UFV planner Vladimir Dvorak wrote in a memo from last May. “But, given the recent history of enrolment at the UFV, it is an ambitious goal as enrolments have underperformed the population growth in the [Fraser Valley].”

UFV has now set itself firm targets that will require reversing domestic student trends, while substantially boosting international enrolment. And it has laid out a list of actions and initiatives to make that happen.

But whether it hits those modest-but-lofty numbers will depend both on its own actions, and the whims of provincial and federal governments.

UFV domestic enrolment has remained stagnant, despite the region’s growing population. 📊 Tyler Olsen

The dip

Last year, UFV’s student population numbered roughly 12,362 domestic students and just under 2,000 international students.

That domestic student figure was 1,000 shy of the college’s pre-pandemic enrolment, and more than 2,000 lower than the university’s enrolment high point of 2010/11, when the university was operating over capacity.

The figures reflect the difficulty UFV has had in attracting local grads and other prospective post-secondary students over the last decade.

The pandemic and the technological legacy it wrought have added to the challenge. UFV exists, after all, to allow Fraser Valley residents to access post-secondary education without having to leave the region. But the increase in remote-learning has made it possible to attend classes—at least some classes, some of the time—in Vancouver or Burnaby from a bedroom in Chilliwack.

The enrolment numbers, coupled with a UFV survey, show hybrid learning has led some Fraser Valley students to expand their post-secondary horizons. As schooling shifted to an online model in 2020, the number of students from Abbotsford and, especially, Chilliwack declined significantly. Administrators suggested that those drops were likely because students from outside the region no longer needed to move to Chilliwack or Abbotsford to take a class. But it also likely reflected the fact that students already living in Chilliwack or Abbotsford could attend a different post-secondary education while living with their family. In the era of Zoom and Microsoft Teams, being the local college is no longer quite the draw it once was.

📷 UFV/Flickr

The plan

Last year, UFV administrators put together a new plan to end the university’s era of stagnant domestic enrolment, meet demand from increasing numbers of local residents, all the while laying the groundwork for a huge increase in its international population (and international student revenue).

The plan set ambitious targets.

By 2030, the university hopes to have 13,803 domestic students and 3,757 international students taking classes. The domestic student figure would represent a relatively modest 12% increase from 2022/23, though it would still represent a significant reversal of previous trends.

The international figure, meanwhile, would represent a 91% jump in the number of foreign students learning at UFV.

That figure looks more dramatic than it really is, owing to a temporary pandemic-related drop in international students. But it would still represent a significant increase—and would provide a huge boost to the university’s finances. This year, UFV has around 2,400 international students, the university’s registrar David Johnston told The Current. So hitting 3,757 would require a 56% increase over the next six or so years.

The university has also identified a range of actions to boost those student figures.

At the top of the list is a goal to make UFV the institution of choice for prospective Indigenous students, whose population—both in the Fraser Valley and beyond—is growing faster than the BC average.

Indigenous people make up 11% of people aged 15 to 24 in the region, but 9% of the UFV student population. Increasing the appeal of a UFV education and reducing barriers will bring those numbers into alignment, administrators hope.

But to hit its broad targets, the university will also have to boost other student populations. Doing so will be a cross-university effort aimed at increasing capacity, improving the image and quality of a UFV education, boosting scholarships, reducing barriers, and forming better links with local schools.

In 2020, the college surveyed around 600 students who applied to UFV. The surveyed applicants who ended up attending UFV cited its location close to home, smaller classes at convenient times, and low qualifying thresholds. Those who ended up going elsewhere frequently said the location of their preferred college was key. But respondents also regularly cited the lower reputation of UFV’s programs compared to others.

The university’s new plan includes a range of actions aimed at improving the student experience to boost both recruitment and retention efforts. That includes increasing help for students in first-year courses with low success rates, reducing waitlists for popular courses, and ensuring that new courses meet the needs of the local community. The university also plans to increase the number of evening and weekend/Friday courses, and increase programs in Chilliwack and Mission.

On the international side of the spectrum, the school hopes to recruit more students from a larger variety of countries, and attract students to programs not already popular with foreign learners.

It will take years to know if the efforts are truly working. And UFV isn’t the only player involved. Because rules and funding from the federal and provincial governments may also make or break the university’s enrolment plans.

The other levels of government

UFV is not entirely in control of its own destiny. Decisions made not in the Fraser Valley, but in Ottawa and Victoria, will also have a large bearing on whether the university can achieve its goals.

The last year has seen the federal government move to address concerns related to the number of international students being admitted by Canadian educational institutions, and the mixed experiences they have while studying here.

Universities across Canada hail international students for the diversity and new perspectives they brought to campus. But most have also seen the students as key sources of revenues that allowed their budgets to grow even when provincial funding and local enrolment does not. (Unlike Canadian students, whose tuition fees are heavily subsidized by government, international student fees cover the full course of their education, and then some.) Governments and politicians encouraged the practice, encouraging universities to aggressively recruit students from overseas to help subsidize the educations of domestic students.

In recent years, there has been an increasing number of news stories about students who felt they were being used as cash cows by Canadian post-secondary institutions.

Students and advocates have said that institutions—or agents compensated by universities—recruited them in their home countries, made grandiose promises, but failed to provide adequate services and resources. Young students have been left to face an array of challenges on their own, while their families frequently struggled to pay the cost of a Canadian education.

UFV itself confronted the matter five years ago. Between 2015 and 2019, the number of international students attending UFV more than doubled to a high of about 2,350. But shortly before the pandemic began, the university’s vice-president of students, Dr. Alisa Webb, wrote a report that warned that rapid growth in international enrolment had affected the student experience for all concerned and, sometimes, actually increased on-campus racism experienced by those same students. Supports for such students had not kept pace, she said.

That report led UFV to cap foreign enrolment at 20 per cent of total enrolment. In the following years, UFV’s foreign population held steady, then declined due to the pandemic and Canada’s withering international relationship with China.

Then there is the rental housing crisis. Over the last year, increasing numbers of housing economists have said the recruitment of large numbers of international students without also increasing the supply of homes for such students has amplified the housing crisis. Increased competition for rental housing in university cities and towns, has pushed rents up for all concerned, and added to the stress faced by the students themselves. Until recently, provincial and senior levels of government had done little to encourage the construction of new student housing for increasing numbers of students who don’t have the option of living at home with their parents.

Although the federal government was initially wary of acknowledging the potential role of international students in the housing crisis, Ottawa has recently moved to cap the number of students each province is allowed to invite to study in their institutions.

And after years of letting local housing markets soak up the demand from students of all stripes, the BC government has promised to spend millions on on-campus housing. At UFV, that includes the construction of a new 398-bed residence. That building is expected to be complete next summer. But hundreds more beds will need to be built in future housing projects—whether on-campus or off—if the supply of homes is to match the increasing number of international students UFV hopes to attract. (Johnston said many students also end up staying with friends or family.)

As for the cap, the federal government has assigned each province a maximum number of international students (technically a certain number of student permit applications). The provinces, then, are left to divide their own quotas between their institutions. Those caps are expected to hit a handful of schools—generally those where a majority of their students are from other countries—particularly hard.

BC’s universities received their study permit allocations earlier this month, and UFV officials say its cap shouldn’t have much of an impact on its student plans.

“We think our allocation will be sufficient to allow us to meet our enrolment goals,” UFV’s Johnston told The Current.

Since that 2019 report, in which UFV’s international student policies and supports were described as causing “widespread concern,” Johnston said there has been progress in addressing the challenges. He pointed to additional mental health resources, academic advisors, and training for staff to better help such students.

Johnston also stressed that the international students aren’t reducing the amount of resources or seats available to local students.

“International students aren’t taking spots from domestic students,” he said. “The additional revenue from international students allows us to provide additional seats as well as additional supports and services for all students. It’s a complicated question, but the international students do supplement what we are already doing for domestic students.”

Increasing international student spaces is relatively simple, because each student essentially provides his or her own funding. (Though actually attracting those students could become increasingly challenging if the international student caps make the overseas sales pitch to prospective learners more difficult.

But scaling up domestic enrolment is trickier, because their spaces are subsidized by the government and there’s no guarantee that more students will bring government funding for more spaces. Johnston noted the university isn’t building a swath of new classrooms—something that would usually require government approval and funding.

The progress

📷 UFV/Flickr

Already there are signs that accommodating more students may end up being more of a challenge than attracting them—even on the domestic side of the equation where growth has been hard to come by in recent years.

UFV’s preliminary data suggests the college’s domestic headcount in 2023/24 increased by more than 700 students from the previous year. If those figures hold, that would represent the largest single-year jump in local enrolment in a decade. Enrolment is still shy of the previous high water mark before the pandemic, but it’s a significant step towards UFV meeting its targets.

UFV’s facilities have some breathing room, owing to sagging enrolment from previous years. But there are already signs of stress.

A recent report from the university’s Psychology Department noted that “Our ability to offer more experiential learning is somewhat limited by our lack of space and workload issues, but nonetheless faculty are striving to include such experiences both in and outside the classroom.”

The department had been handed a set of recommendations in 2020 to improve the program. In February, they wrote that they’ve tried their best but that addressing some of the improvements are not realistically achievable at the present moment. “For example, we have been requesting additional space for quite some time and will continue to do so; while we can continue to make our plea, ultimately, we do not have control over the limited space at UFV.”

The challenge, for UFV’s bosses, is neither do they: if the university is to grow, it will require capital funding from the provincial government.

International enrolment, meanwhile, has surged again, with headcounts increasing by nearly 50% just over the last year. Nearly 3,000 foreign students have studied at UFV this year. That’s by far the largest number in the college’s history and the increase is expected to add $12 million to the university’s budget. The money will help finance 11 new faculty positions as the university looks to accommodate a new generation of students.

The last year has seen the largest single-year jump in both domestic and international enrolment in more than a decade. 📊 Tyler Olsen

UFV may have capped international enrolment at 25% of its entire population, but the university remains anywhere between 200 and 1,000 foreign students shy of that self-imposed cap (depending whether one counts by full-time-equivalents or headcount).

When speaking to The Current, Johnston called the targets “aspirational,” noting they are based on a range of assumptions, including that the growth of student-age population materializes. He noted that those students will also need more facilities, classrooms, and infrastructure to accommodate them.

It wasn’t too long ago that the Fraser Valley’s Kindergarten-to-Grade-12 schools were in a similar position than UFV is today. Schools too had seen stagnant enrolment over a prolonged period the early 2000s. Then, suddenly, the students arrived, and now, amid a housing and population boom, local districts and the government are struggling to keep up with an influx of new students and families.

UFV is seeing signs that it may be emerging from its enrolment rut. That growth can bring more funding, programs and energy. But it will also test the university’s ability to adapt to an uncertain era. UFV will need to find places to teach its new students. It will have to match programs with those students’ career ambitions. And, perhaps hardest of all, it will have to provide adequate support to thousands of young students whose families have put their trust in UFV.

Join the conversation

or to participate.