Enrolment spike does not derail plans

Sending out 600 fewer acceptance letters this year, The University of Western Ontario did not expect to be welcoming its largest first-year class in its history this week.

It is an imperfect science to determine the right number of acceptance letters to garner the ideal number of students, says Janice Deakin, provost and vice-president academic at Western.

Across the province, universities are preparing for the largest cohort of students ever to arrive at Ontario’s 21 universities. Western has more than 5,100 first-year students beginning classes this week.

The enrolment growth at Western will not put financial strain on faculties, assures Deakin. At least for now.

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Today might be the first day of classes, but the fun of Orientation Week is just getting started. Smiling faces and colourful clothing are the trademarks of sophs, upper-year student volunteers who help to welcome first-year students to their new home.

The new revenue-sharing model will help support faculties watching its first-year class sizes grow, she says. Implemented in the 2011-12 budget, decisions on how to spend money shifted to the faculties and they will receive 40 per cent of the revenue from undergraduate programs. This means more students put extra money in the faculties’ pockets.

We’re confident that our complement of faculty members and teaching assistants will be able to continue to maintain high-quality standards,” Deakin says. “Area-specific challenges that may arise due to the incremental enrolment increase will be managed largely at the faculty and/or departmental level.”

Last year’s enrolment came in at 4,750 and the target for the 2011-12 academic year an additional 50 students, bringing the total to 4,800. Instead, Western far exceeded its target.

“The success of this year’s recruitment efforts has resulted in an additional 300 students above our projected target, and about 350 more students than we welcomed to campus last year,” she says. “With the above in mind, we did take some extra measures to accommodate this year’s larger-than-expected entering class.”

Western made increasing its international student intake a top priority. The goal is to bring the number of international students from about 3 per cent of the student body to closer to the provincial average of 6 per cent. To close the gap, Western set a target of increasing its first-year international student intake from 150 to 250 students.

The university upped the ante on recruitment and exceeded its goal with 300 international first-year students setting foot on campus this fall.

Once the numbers were in, planning began to ensure the extra students would be accommodated. This meant adding extra days to Summer Academic Orientation, a program to help students get familiar with campus and services, register for courses and meet other first-year students. The university is maintaining its first-year course guarantee, which ensures students will be granted enrolment in the first-year courses in program they were admitted.

Western continues to honour its first-year residence guarantee, but in order to do so London Hall – a residence intended for upper year students – will be entirely dedicated to first-year students. Essex Hall, a neighbouring residence, underwent a dining hall renovation this summer. This expansion will enable it to cater to both buildings, as London Hall does not have a built-in dining facility.

“In terms of our facilities and services, we believe we can accommodate this incremental enrolment increase,” says Gitta Kulczycki, vice-president (resources & operations).

“Another area we are responding to is hospitality and food services where increased staffing will be needed to meet the needs of more students,” she continues.

The university will be looking at the hours of operation in many of its food outlets to monitor which outlets are sustaining higher volumes. Extra staff has been added to Essex Hall’s dining staff and in London Hall to provide programming and oversee the residence.

Only approximately 6 per cent of undergraduate students living in residence bring vehicles to school, so the impact on parking on campus is expected to be marginal, she notes.

“While some of the services provided by Western Student Services are automated and remain mostly unaffected by increased student enrolment, other programming and services engage students one-on-one, and our staff continue to adapt to increased demand for services,” says John Doerksen, vice-provost (academic programs and students) [registrar].

Western Student Services will continue to make changes as necessary to make sure student needs are met, he adds.

This year’s spike in enrolment does set the university’s growth plans off track, Deakin says. Western plans to continue with its enrolment targets, projecting an incoming class of 4,800 in 2012-13, and growing to an incoming class of 4,900 in each of the 2013-14 and 2014-15 academic years.

“We will continue to learn from our experience and fine-tune our offer process, but the fact that our acceptance rates continue to rise is a clear indication that Western’s reputation is strong and that our school is a destination of choice for a growing number of exceptional students,” she says.

Construction of a new 1,000-bed student residence is expected to begin this fall and this will provide additional residence space for the growing first-year class, as well as allow upper-year students to once again occupy London Hall. It will also free up space in the other residences to allow for an average of 15 per cent occupancy of upper-year students in other residence buildings. The new residence is projected to be completed September 2013.