The COVID-19 pandemic could cost Canadian universities billions of dollars, Statistics Canada says

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MONTREAL -- Canadian universities could lose up to $3.4 billion this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, in particular due to lack of foreign students, according to projections from Statistics Canada.

In a document released this week, the federal body attempted to estimate the losses that universities will experience for the 2020-2021 school year.

Statistics Canada points out that tuition fees occupy an increasing proportion of university budgets.

In 2013-2014, tuition fees represented 24.7 per cent of the budget, while in 2018-2019, it was 29.4 per cent.

According to the organization, this is due to the growing proportion of international students, who pay higher tuition fees, almost five times more than Canadians. In 2017-18, they alone paid about 40 per cent of all tuition fees.

Thus, according to Statistics Canada projections, universities could lose from $377 million to $3.4 billion, or from 0.8 per cent to 7.5 per cent of their revenues.

Statistics Canada relied on study permits from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, which are linked to the number of international students in the country.

In 2020, the issuance of permits decreased by 58 per cent, and about 13 per cent of those already issued were no longer valid last September.

Statistics Canada also took into account the possible variation in enrollment among Canadian students. According to the Labor Force Survey, 20 per cent of young people aged 17 to 24 who were in school in March and planning to continue their education ultimately said they would not return.

THE PICTURE IN QUEBEC

The Canadian Press contacted several Quebec universities to ask them what the impact of the pandemic will be on their coffers.

Those who responded gave a more or less precise picture of the situation.

At McGill University, the administration was delighted that the number of registrations (39,387) remained more or less the same as in 2019.

"We are monitoring the situation closely and adapting our learning activities to create a safe and welcoming experience on our campuses for the approximately 60 per cent of our students who are currently in Montreal, while respecting the protocols," said spokesperson Katherine Gombay in an email.

For its part, the University of Quebec in Montreal (UQAM) expects "significant" financial losses, mainly due to activities in the periphery, including auxiliary services and continuing education.

"We must also consider the additional costs associated with this pandemic, in particular with regard to information technology and the additional costs associated with construction work," said spokesperson Jenny Desrochers.

UQAM also predicts a drop in the enrollment of international students, linked to travel restrictions.

For its part, the University of Sherbrooke says it is still too early to discuss possible financial losses.

However, the university expects a drop in international students.

"However, there are means in place to adequately welcome and supervise international students registered at a distance. Several choices have been made to ensure their success, for example adjusting the schedules, creating separate groups, adapting the teaching methods," wrote Isabelle Huard, media relations advisor at the university in an email.

ADAPTING TO THE NEW REALITY

Wendy Therrien, director of external relations and research at Universities Canada - which represents Canadian universities - believes it is still too early to assess whether the pandemic will have an impact on the budget or on enrollment.

"What I can tell you is that the CEB (Canada Emergency Benefit), which was announced by the federal government, has helped many students and their families to have the means and confidence to return to school in September," she said in an interview.

According to Therrien, Canadian universities have adapted to travel restrictions by allowing international students to take their courses online.

"It helps us retain these students and not lose them in other markets," she explained.

FOREIGN STUDENTS COMING SOON

As of October 20, the Government of Canada will also allow universities to welcome more foreign students.

Foreign students studying in Canada will be able to come to the country if their university has an intervention plan approved by the provinces and territories.

"Like all travellers who come to Canada, students are foreigners and their accompanying family members will be subject to all public health measures, including the mandatory quarantine period of 14 days upon their arrival in Canada," the federal government website said.

-- this report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 11, 2020. 

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