At the core of every Canadian post-secondary institution is a mission, a clarity of purpose that—in the best cases—is keenly felt by every member of the campus community. This sense of purpose is the product of many influences, including a commitment to the core principles of higher education that date back centuries. Today, one also sees institutions searching for ways to better serve the communities and regions in which they’re based. But underlying both of these commitments is a question whose answer might have been considered a given at many institutions until recently.
That question is: Who are our students?
It’s a question that has become central to the mission of many Canadian universities, says Dr. Arja Vainio-Mattila, Provost and VP, Academic and Research at Nipissing University.
“We are now at a stage where we’re asking fundamental questions about our institutional identity and where we want to go moving forward,” says Vainio-Mattila. “This conversation has to be directly tied to the question of who is enrolling at our institution, because our mission needs to meet students where they are and respond to the needs and aspirations they bring to post-secondary education.”
The sentiment is shared by Nipissing’s Interim Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Science, Dr. Pavlina Radia, who notes, “When we talk about institutional mission, we used to base that conversation on the assumption that students were entering post-secondary directly from high school, were demographically homogenous for the most part, and had no part-time or full-time job drawing time away from their studies. That’s not the case anymore, and this shift in student demographics has a direct impact on an institution’s mission and how it should go about fulfilling that mission.”
To better understand these shifting demographics and prospective students’ perceptions of their school, Nipissing commissioned Academica Group to perform a series of studies that included strategic enrolment research, viewbook testing, and on-campus research presentations that invited all campus community members to learn and become engaged.
“I think one of the key things is that when you have research, you make sure that everyone has a chance to take a look at it and come to their own conclusions,” says Dr. Vainio-Mattila. “Then you provide a space for people to voice those conclusions and try to align them with what others have taken away from the same evidence. Before you can do that, of course, you need people to trust in the reliability of the research itself, and that’s where we’ve found that combining our internal data with third-party research has had a very positive impact.”
Among the results of Nipissing’s research has been a clear year-over-year rise in the proportion of mature learners enrolled at the school, as well as the impact of current and future recruitment efforts directed to international students and the many Indigenous communities in Nipissing’s surrounding region, says university Registrar Debra Iafrate.
Dr. Radia adds that the shifting demographics in Nipissing’s region (Northern Ontario) have also directly impacted the institution’s academic mission. “On the academic side, having a better understanding of our enrolments has inspired our highly engaged faculty to think about how innovations in curriculum, pedagogy, and opportunities for learning can shift with these enrolment changes to ensure that Nipissing is providing its students with the best possible education. It also impacts how our faculty think about their research, since students at our school are encouraged to become involved in research in their undergraduate years.”
One might wonder, however, about what the future of academic programming might look like with shifting student enrollment.
“When it comes to academic programming, the question we ask ourselves internally is, ‘What programs should we offer in order to ensure that our students have a post-secondary education of the highest quality?’” says Dr. Vainio-Mattila. “I think this is part of the reason you see such transparent sharing of our research and collegial conversations about the story it is telling. There is clear consensus and trust from all corners of the university that the conversation isn’t about prioritizing some programs over others, but one of figuring out how we can all move forward together from a place of strength.”
Nipissing is currently in the process of developing its next strategic plan, and Dr. Vainio-Mattila, Dr. Radia, and Iafrate say they are optimistic about this process and its grounding in data and deep engagement with all members of the university community.
“In the end,” notes Dr. Vainio-Mattila, “we all agree that we need to move forward together, and strong data and evidence about our students and their perceptions provides the basis for the productive conversations we need to truly transform the lives of our students for the better.”