Ontario students are taking up university admission offers at almost the same rate as before the pandemic, suggesting the shift to online education may not drive away as many new students as feared.

The first published data on confirmed offers of acceptance at Ontario universities show almost no difference between this year and last year, although there are sharp contrasts among schools. Queen’s University and Western show large increases among incoming Ontario high school students, while some universities in Northern Ontario and outside the Greater Toronto Area are seeing declines.

Even the numbers of international students, who would face significant hurdles getting to Canada but can enroll online from their home countries, seem to be holding steady in comparison with last year.

Over all, 103,426 offers of admission to domestic and international students have been confirmed, compared with 102,289 a year ago.

But university registrars caution that a lot can change between now and September, when final registrations are due.

The threat of enrolment declines has weighed heavily on universities as they consider the potential effect on their budgets. But with no point of comparison to a global pandemic, making projections has been difficult.

At Western University, confirmations from students at Ontario high schools are up nearly 28 per cent compared with last year. Registrar Glen Tigert said the university shifted its admission strategy in March to focus on domestic high school students. The thinking at the time was that international students would have a harder time travelling to Canada in the fall, he said. The number of international students who have confirmed an offer of admission at Western is down about 10 per cent compared with last year.

The strategic shift applied to admission offers. Although the final average grade of entering students is expected to remain about the same as last year, the required midyear average was slightly relaxed, Mr. Tigert said.

“We feel good about our numbers, but we are also watching them closely,” Mr. Tigert said. “There’s still a long time between now and September.”

The admissions process this year is particularly tricky because it’s usually guided by historical patterns, which have been completely thrown off by COVID-19.

At the University of Toronto, confirmations from Ontario high-school students are down about 9 per cent, but over all the numbers are up by about 4 per cent, buoyed by an increase in students from outside Ontario as well as a jump of nearly 20 percent in accepted offers from international students, according to registrar Richard Levin.

“We’ve never seen a year like this,” Mr. Levin said. “Normal forecasting is premised on historical data and patterns staying the same. And we just don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Many people have predicted enrolment will fall as a result of the shift to hold classes primarily online at many schools.

“We’ve all seen surveys where students indicate they’d prefer an in-person experience and they might defer, but you have to think about what a student’s options are if they choose not to come to school. A gap year is a great thing in normal circumstances, but now if you can’t travel and you can’t work, it’s not that attractive a prospect,” Mr. Levin said.

Mikal Skuterud, an economist at the University of Waterloo, said historical data show that enrolment is countercyclical, in other words, it tends to increase when the economy is in recession and shrink in boom times, he said.

“These numbers suggest that doing a course online, even though it’s not the best option, is still better than not doing anything,” Prof. Skuterud said.

Ontario universities already faced a revenue crunch after the provincial government decided to reduce tuition fees for domestic students by 10 per cent a year ago and freeze them for 2020.

The pressure is likely to be more urgent at universities in smaller centres. Laurentian, where Ontario confirmations are down 14 per cent, has said it expects enrolment to decline this year. Lakehead, Brock and Nipissing are also seeing a decline in confirmations.

Ontario Tech University in Oshawa, where confirmations are down about 10 per cent, is offering a student experience guarantee, pledging a full refund on tuition until Oct. 9 if students are unsatisfied.

“We wanted to show prospective students we’re taking this unprecedented time seriously and we’re putting our best foot forward to ensure we’re offering a really positive experience,” registrar Joe Stokes said.

The Globe and Mail, June 10, 2020