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An empty classroom, students are at home with Zoom lectures instead. Oct. 8, 2020.

Western’s enrolment from Ontario high school students skyrocketed by almost 30 per cent this year, as the coronavirus pandemic continues to close businesses and shrink the job market.

Almost 4,900 first-years coming out of grade 12 at an Ontario secondary school are attending Western University this fall, a sharp increase from the 3,800 recent high school graduates who attended last year.

“The increase in domestic enrolment is a consequence of the fact that students have worse alternatives,” said Baxter Robinson, an assistant professor of economics at Western. “While the vast majority of students would rather take in-person classes than take all their classes online, their other alternatives this year have deteriorated at an even worse rate.”

While domestic numbers increased exponentially, international numbers stayed roughly the same, despite an increase in spots offered to potential international students.

The number of students who don’t fit into either category — mainly out-of-province or mature students — make up the remaining 506 spots, down from 884 last year.

These totals were calculated from a June Globe and Mail report that said Western’s 2020-21 enrolment from Ontario high schools increased by 28 per cent. Western officials would not confirm this number.

Western reports enrolment numbers after a census in November, but makes estimates prior — estimates for total and international enrolment were presented at an August Board of Governors meeting.

The nearly 30 per cent jump comes after the Canadian economy officially hit a recession in May. Prospective Western students must accept their offers by June, several months into the global pandemic this year, while many students accept their offers in advance.

“The increase in enrolment is a direct consequence of the pandemic,” Robinson said. “The better we do at dealing with public health crises, the faster the economy will recover.” 

The last time a spike like this occurred was in the 2003-04 school year, when grade 13 was officially phased out by the provincial government. The phasing out resulted in two years of students starting their post-secondary educations at the same time.

Even if Canada and the rest of the world can recover from the pandemic, Robinson said it’s still likely domestic enrolment numbers will stay high, as the labour market faces high rates of unemployment in industries often populated by students, like food service.

In times of economic crisis — for example, the 2008 recession — enrolment in post-secondary institutions tends to surge, as the job market shrinks and people look to acquire new skills and education. As a result of the 2008 recession, four out of 10 graduates stayed in school to pursue higher education.

“A very healthy, robust job market will lead more potential students to choose not to become students, and a weaker job market will lead more potential students to become students,” Robinson said. “A lot of businesses that have already gone out of business here in Canada, [and] there’s going to be a lot more that are going to have to permanently close as their revenues are just not going to be able to sustain them during this crisis.”

Correction (Nov. 9, 2020, 3:04 p.m.): This article has been corrected to reflect that Baxter Robinson is an assistant professor, not an associate professor.

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Sarah is a Culture Editor for volume 114. Email her at sarah.wallace@westerngazette.ca or find her on Twitter @sarahkwallace7

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