Nova Scotia’s major demographic for university enrolment (18-29 year olds) is already in decline and is projected to shrink by approximately 36,000 (or 24%) between 2011 and 2031 (Figure 1).[i]  More than 70% (or 26,000) of this decline will occur by 2021.

Maintaining Enrolment: Is it Even Possible?

Nova Scotia is heavily invested in its universities, with enrolment capacity that already well exceeds local demand. Many analysts, including the author of the O’Neill report, underestimate the growth potential of some groups. With this in mind, it is useful to examine a number of specific groups more closely.

18-29 Year Old Nova Scotians

While there may be at least some room to offset enrolment decline amongst this group, it is unlikely that their increased participation alone will be enough to maintain current enrolment levels.


  1. To fully offset population decline, Nova Scotia would need to boost its prime cohort participation rate from under 30% to 32% and then sustain that rate through the year 2031.[ii]  But Statistics Canada official projects this group’s participation to grow modestly, averaging 0.1% per year (18-24 year olds), over that period.[iii]
  2. Recent historical precedent exists for higher levels of participation over shorter periods of time. Furthermore, as of 2011-12, Nova Scotia’s 18-24 year olds participation rate has once again reached 30% while the participation rate for 25-29 year olds reached 10% for the first time.[iv]


Underrepresented Groups

A number of identifiable demographic groups are currently underrepresented in Nova Scotia’s university system. Each group faces significant barriers to university access, which underline the importance of promoting equitable access to higher education for all Nova Scotians; a key priority for StudentsNS.


  1. Aboriginal and African Nova Scotians: Both groups are underrepresented in Nova Scotia’s universities, but together comprise only a small percentage of the overall population (2.7% and 2.1% respectively).[v] Thus, even a large increase in participation rates, while meaningful, would have a limited impact on overall enrolment.
  2. Low-income families: This group, including many Aboriginal and African Nova Scotians, is marginally more promising for enrolment gains, comprising at least 15% of the total provincial youth population.[vi]
  3. Young Adult Males: University participation rates of young males lag behind those of their female peers. In Nova Scotia, 58% of university students are female and the remaining 42% are male.[vii]
  4. Mature Students: The population of 30-49 year olds is also projected to decline through 2031; meanwhile, Nova Scotia’s historical participation rate for this group is extremely low (below 1%).[viii]  Currently, Nova Scotia’s youngest ‘mature students,’ 30 to 34 year olds, are participating in PSE at historically high levels.[ix]

Out-of-Province Students  (OOPS)

OOPS are clearly important to Nova Scotia’s university system, with fully 32% of our university students coming from another Canadian province.[x] Nova Scotia’s OOPS population has stabilized at around 14,000 students (32-33% of the population) since 2009, reflecting Canada’s broader aging trend.

  1. Ontario accounts for 46% of all OOPS and 15% of all university students in Nova Scotia.[xi] It is also the only province projected to continue modest short-term growth in the key university cohort (chart). Canada’s population of 18-29 year-olds will peak in 2013 and decline by a more modest 4.3% by 2031. The smaller decline, relative to Nova Scotia’s 24%, is largely due to 77,000 individuals Ontario will add between 2010 and 2017. Nova Scotia’s toehold in Ontario may help us to maintain enrolment levels.
  2. On the other hand, Ontario is working hard to retain more of its own students. It aims to create 60,000 new post-secondary spaces and has introduced a 30% Off Tuition Grant for native Ontarians and a $15,000 per year Ontario Graduate Scholarship.[xii]


International Students

Prospective international students represent Nova Scotia’s best chance to continue utilizing its university capacity.


  1. Nova Scotia already attracts a greater proportion of international students than the national average (11.8% vs. 8.7% in 2010-11).[xiii]  And current system enrolment growth is being driven entirely by international students: in 2012-13, the addition of 695 new international students exceeded the university system’s net growth of 654 students.[xiv]
  2. The federal government recently set an ambitious goal to double the number of international students in Canada from 239,000 students in 2011 to 450,000 by 2022, corresponding to roughly 7,000 new students for Nova Scotia,[xv] more than offsetting the expected decline in enrolment of domestic 18-29 year olds.[xvi]
  3. Nova Scotia is in a strong position to increase international enrolment: Canada as a whole is a popular international destination, currently hosting 5% of all international students (4th-ranked English-speaking country; 2nd ranked French-speaking country);[xvii] Canada stands up well to international comparisons on educational cost and quality;[xviii] and Nova Scotia has certain sectoral advantages (e.g. excess capacity) and/or cost-of-living advantages (e.g. lower differential fees) than most other provinces.

Modeling the Future

Based on analyses, Nova Scotia faces significant challenges in boosting enrolment over the next 20 years. Given the strong history of recruiting international students it may be possible to avoid significant decline in overall enrolment. While other groups might help to mitigate enrolment decline, t is likely that most (if not all) enrolment growth over the next 20 years will come from international students.


For modeling purposes, we assume a zero net growth scenario in which the decline of Nova Scotian and other Canadian enrollees is matched exactly by recruitment of new international students (Figure 2). This simplified scenario dramatically allows us to approximate the increased international character of Nova Scotia’s future student population. We project the number of international students to roughly double, to around 12,000 students (29% of the 2030-31 student population). To put this in perspective, SMU and CBU currently have international populations of 25% and 24%, respectively, so there is a local precedent for such large international enrolment.[xix]



Figure 1. Long Term Demographic Trends for Nova Scotia, Canada, and Ontario (% Change in Population, 2011-2036, (5-year increments)

Figure 2. Share of Total Student Population (43,108 students), by Jurisdiction of Origin (2011-12 and 2030-31)


[i] O’Neill, 2010; Statistics Canada, 2010.

[ii] O’Neill, 2010.

[iii] Statistics Canada, 2010.

[iv] Statistics Canada 2012c.

[v] Statistics Canada, 2012b.

[vi] Finnie et al., 2011; McMullen, 2012; Community Foundation-NS, 2011; CAUT, 2012.

[vii] Richards, 2011; CAUT, 2012.

[viii] Statistics Canada, 2010; O’Neill, 2010.

[ix] Statistics Canada 2012c..

[x] MPHEC, 2012a.

[xi] MPHEC 2012a.

[xii] Government of Ontario, 2011; Ministry of Education Ontario, 2012; 2013.

[xiii] Statistics Canada, 2013; Table 477-0019.

[xiv] Atlantic Association of Universities, 2012.

[xv] Advisory Panel on Canada’s International Education Strategy, 2012.

[xvi] O’Neill, 2010; StudentsNS, 2013.

[xvii] OECD, 2010.


[xix] Atlantic Association of Universities, 2012.