Will the liberal arts university turn into the Walking Dead?

English professor Dennis Desroches said declining enrolments at liberal arts universities like St. Thomas University is getting scary.

(Andrea Bárcenas/AQ)
(Andrea Bárcenas/AQ)

“The liberal arts university will survive…as a zombie. And zombies eat the thing liberal arts universities are supposed to nourish.”

Earlier this month, St. Thomas’s enrolment numbers were released by the Association of Atlantic Universities. STU’s enrolment dropped 6.5 per cent with 144 fewer students than last year for a total of 2,070 students enrolled. Overall, STU has about 1,000 fewer students than 10 years ago.

While administration would not release enrolment decreases for individual departments, students are flocking to the sciences and vocation-oriented programs and away from traditional humanities. American statistics show the percentage of humanities students has been halved since the 1970s.

Student union president Santiago Chavez said if the trend of decreasing enrolment continues, by 2018 STU will have 1,200 students.

“If that happens, STU is not going to be sustainable financially. You need to increase student enrolment. You have to.”

But there are major differences in opinion on how that can be done.

In February, the administration projected enrolment numbers to be low again this year at 1,950 students, so they planned accordingly. First, it raised tuition for Canadian students by $357 to $5,552 for this school year and cut tenure-track positions. President Dawn Russell also decided to create a new position of associate vice-president of enrolment management, Scott Duguay, and hired a new director of student services and residence life, Shannon Clarke.

For professors like Desroches, that’s the wrong focus. Instead of trying to keep growing, administration should focus on the students they already have and build on the resources and quality of education.

“They should stop hiring administrators, and start hiring full-time, tenure-track professors, who, after all, are responsible for making liberal arts education worthwhile,” said the past president of both the STU faculty union and the Federation of New Brunswick Faculty Associations.

STU spokesperson Jeffery Carleton said the university has been working on programs and strategies to increase enrolment including staff training, targeting new markets domestically and focusing on retaining students through career planning and engagement activities.

“Our job is, as tough as it is dealing with 17, 18 and 19-year-old students, is to make sure they understand that the liberal arts degree will give them the critical skills for the workplace and gives them an education that can be life changing and make their life more rewarding.”

International student enrolment saw an increase of 24 students to 141 total.

The most problematic number is first-year class enrolment, which decreased by 90 students to 444 students enrolled in first year. This is the third consecutive year the size of the first year class has dropped. STU is not the only university in Atlantic Canada to experience a drop in enrolment this year. All New Brunswick universities experienced a decrease. Overall, the province was down 830 students or five per cent.

St. Thomas University’s Students’ Union supports the university’s strategies to fix low enrolment. STUSU president Chavez said he agrees with Duguay’s focus on strategy.

“It’s not just about better courses and being awesome. How are we awesome and in what respects? And how are we going to show that to the world – because it’s a lot about perceived value,” said Chavez.

STUSU has been contributing to the value by focusing on services and activities that add to the student experience, said Chavez.

“The goal is to show that actually coming to STU provides you more than just a degree.”

Chavez said the union has a close relationship with the administration and has been helping them with events such as open house, summer recruiting and alumni weekend.

Although Desroches sees value in a liberal arts education, he fears that the way administration is handling low enrolment means STU will never be the same.

“One thing is certain: jacking up tuition for students, negotiating miserly collective agreements with faculty, and then proceeding to hire new administrators doesn’t seem to be a logical tactic for increasing enrolment.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misquoted Santiago Chavez saying it is “all” about perceived value. In fact, he said it is “a lot” about perceived value. We apologize for the error. 

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  • Show Comments (1)

  • Smitty

    I can tell you I went to St. Thomas for the lower tuition rates (it was significantly cheaper to attend STU than it was StFX as an in-province student. Now that the gap is closing, only an idiot would choose STU over another school. They have less to offer in terms of courses, facilities, services and events.

    The only way STU can survive is by being significantly cheaper than the alternatives, even if that means offering less. It’s either that or you’l all be attending your class reunions on an expanded UNB campus.

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