Enrolment in spring and summer courses has jumped at many Canadian universities despite the shift to online classes. The increase likely reflects a depressed summer jobs market, but may also raise hopes that online learning won’t produce a steep enrolment drop this fall, as some university leaders have feared.

The surprising boost, in the absence of in-school classes during the pandemic, can be seen right across the country. At the University of British Columbia, enrolment for its two summer terms is up 32 per cent at the Vancouver campus and 45 per cent at the Okanagan campus.

At the University of Toronto, registration for summer courses is up more than 20 per cent compared with a year ago, and the university is adding classes to meet demand. Dalhousie is up 8 per cent. The University of Winnipeg has more than doubled its spring course registrations, to more than 3,600 this year from 1,500 last year.

Applications for Ontario universities also suggest that interest in fall entrance remains steady, despite the uncertainty surrounding whether in-person classes will be possible.

Data from the Ontario Universities’ Application Centre show that by May 13 more than 469,000 applications had been received from Ontario secondary schools, down only slightly from 473,000 in 2019. However, a number of those applications would have been completed before the long-term implications of COVID-19 became clear.

Several universities, including McGill, UBC and Concordia, said last week that fall classes will be mainly online, while others have yet to declare their plans.

Much remains uncertain, however, as public-health officials monitor the progress of COVID-19 and students and families consider their options for next year. Some universities say they’re hoping to have opportunities for smaller classes to meet face to face.

Universities by design create opportunities for a young, diverse population to come into close contact with hundreds or even thousands of others, which complicates their reopening.

As they face a bleak summer jobs market because of economic conditions related to COVID-19, some students are looking to universities to fill the void.

Justin Zheng, a fourth-year student at UBC, said he enrolled in summer courses in part because the job he hoped to get fell through. When exams ended in April, he worried about how he would occupy himself and decided to speed his progress toward a degree.

“It was scary for me not having anything to do,” Mr. Zheng said.

He said online learning has disadvantages, but his political-science classes are lecture-based and translate fairly well. One criticism he has is that questions aren’t answered spontaneously, which detracts from the process of clarification and collective understanding that he finds effective in a live lecture.

He decided against taking one particular class because he thought the absence of hands-on instruction would be too hard to overcome.

“The learning environment is easy to take for granted, but once it’s taken away, you notice how important it was,” Mr. Zheng said.

At the University of Saskatchewan, enrolment is up 11 per cent for the spring and summer, even though the university is offering 10 per cent fewer classes because of distancing restrictions. Patti McDougall, vice-provost teaching, learning and student experience, said that in a down economy, students tend to see investment in education as worthwhile.

“I think it has a lot to do here with the job market,” Ms. McDougall said. She also said prospects for fall enrolment are looking good. Applications are up, but the picture will be clearer once confirmations roll in next month.

“Will our students coming out of high school want to take a term off or a year off? The typical things you would do in a gap year, like work or travel, or volunteer, if those aren’t really compelling, then I think being in university will be a very good option,” Ms. McDougall said.

The University of Waterloo typically has one of the largest spring enrolments and has roughly 19,000 students this year, on par with 2019, according to registrar Cathy Newell Kelly.

“I’m not surprised actually that we’re trending on a par with our normal. We’ve been doing online at Waterloo for more than 20 years. Twenty per cent of our student body routinely takes one or more or even all of their courses online,” she said.

She said normally the university would put significant resources into helping instructors build materials and assessment tools for online learning. However, for the moment, they have to make do with what’s possible. Waterloo’s experience has helped navigate the transition.

“We don’t have time to build multimedia,” she said. “So you really home in on what are the learning objectives for the course, and how can we best help the student achieve those learning objectives with what we have.

“You can’t deliver a lecture at 2 p.m. in Ontario and think that that’s going to work for somebody who’s living in Hong Kong. You need to think about video capture so students can access it whenever it’s convenient and then they can contribute to an online discussion in an asynchronous fashion.”

Globe health columnist André Picard examines the complex issues around reopening schools and businesses after the coronavirus lockdown. He says whatever happens as provinces reopen, there’s also a second wave of COVID-19 illnesses looming in the fall. André was talking via Instagram Live with The Globe’s Madeleine White.

The Globe and Mail, May 17, 2020