FYP through the red

This year, enrolment in the Foundation Year Programme (FYP) is down – way down – to 254 students from over 300 just a year ago.

While no administration officials will say FYP enrolment numbers in the mid-200s constitute a major issue, all acknowledge that this year’s low figures come at a particularly bad time. The college’s operations budget, which covers the day-to-day activities of the school, and its growing salaries budget, is 89 per cent funded by student fees, and budget shortfalls over the past half decade have already put the college almost $1 million in deficit.

George Cooper, the president and vice chancellor, Jim Fitzpatrick, the bursar, and public budget documents all said across-the-board budget cuts, salary reviews and staff cutbacks in areas such as maintenance are all underway in the search to save the university from crippling debt, and in particular the administration is trying to draft a unified strategy to attract new students and encourage current students to stay.

King’s has a problem with retaining students after first year, as they move on to greener academic shores, building on the foundations laid by FYP. As part of a plan to retain students, and the income from their tuition, FYP professors will be required to keep tabs on their students’ academic progress using an increasingly formalized process of consultations with failing students.

“The faculty’s done a pretty darn fine job… of keeping an eye out for students as they progress here at King’s,” said Cooper. “I think it probably needs to become more intense in future than it has in the past, more structured.”

Though the process has not yet been formally established, Cooper suggested that a series of red flags – a missed paper, a poor midterm, declining quality of work – will be used to mark out students for additional consultation with professors and an expanded Student Services department in the Registrar’s Office.

In addition, King’s is phasing in a series of new “academic innovations” to increase the appeal of its upper-year programs. Students in the School of Journalism will now be able to take courses for credit at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, and partnerships with Dalhousie will offer Contemporary Studies Programme students courses in non-Western philosophical traditions.

These academic changes in response to enrolment set the stage for tension between the faculty’s pedagogical concerns and the administration’s financial ones. Expenses – salaries predominant among them – continue to rise even as enrolment declines. Perpetual growth in the revenue from students, be it through greater enrolment, higher fees, or larger per-student subsidies, will be necessary to sustain the university’s operations.
In other words, King’s needs more students in its naturally limited programs.

FYP, for example, is restrained by the size of its facilities, in particular Alumni Hall, but this has not prevented administration advocating for a more densely packed programme. While programme director Daniel Brandes advocates for a smaller programme of 275 FYP students, with tutorials of no more than 15 students, Cooper and Fitzpatrick hope every one of Alumni Hall’s 320 seats are filled in 2015-16.

“Everything should grow to some degree,” said Fitzpatrick.

For his part, Brandes is adamant that no changes will be made to the notoriously challenging programme to attract a greater number or variety of students.

“We’ve made it very clear… that these decisions cannot be made without the primary focus being pedagogical,” he said. “We have to be in constant engagement with (the administration), reminding them of this fact, and insisting upon the central importance of teaching, which, after all, is what we do.”

For now, the administration’s desire to see more bodies in Alumni Hall is unlikely to affect the Foundation Year’s programming, though administration officials have considered – and rejected – the idea. While both Fitzpatrick and Cooper suggested in passing that structural changes could be made to the programme to double its capacity — for example, through rotating lecture schedules – they acknowledged it would not benefit the programme, the “core of (King’s) marketing.”

Much more likely are further expansions in more lucrative and less academically sensitive areas, such as the new master’s programmes in Journalism and Fine Arts. The Journalism programme has almost tripled its enrolment already in the past five years, altering both administrative structure and admissions standards in the process.
Although this is good news for those programs, as the money generated by journalism and fine arts students are returned to their disciplines, enrolment across the college needs to increase to allow for balanced financial stability.

“We’re particularly sensitive to enrolment,” said Fitzpatrick, referencing the size of the university. “We’re fighting against demographics.”

These demographics are an across-the-board decline in enrolments in the humanities, not just in Nova Scotia but across Canada and the United States. Administration officials are eager to point to a series of broader issues that have caused the decline of the small liberal arts college like King’s – shifts in employment patterns, rising student debt, and a changing conception of universities among them.

Yet, despite these trends, King’s maintained a fairly consistent number of FYP students, about 310, between 2009 and 2012. While 2012 saw a drop of more than 20 students, 2013-14 saw a resurgence in numbers, to 306, seeming to mark a return to consistency. Retention throughout first year has also remained constant – about 20 students leave each year without completing FYP, but this has not worsened as humanities education wanes globally in popularity.

This year’s drop, coming on the heel of disastrous flooding in the Chapel and Alexandra Hall, and the unceremonious departure of the former bursar Gerald Smith, is less of a negatively sloping trend than a sudden, precipitous cliff. And should enrolment numbers continue to decline – or fail to improve – administration and faculty may truly have to panic as King’s overburdened budget plunges deeper into the red.