As Red Deer Polytechnic student returned for the first day of classes on Thursday student and administration leaders greeted the coming school year with optimism.
Administrators hoped enrolment this fall would return to 2019 numbers, but the persistent pandemic that has flared into a fourth wave intervened.
“When we were looking at that this time in early March we weren’t anticipating a fourth wave. We were hoping that if students could be on campus that it would encourage enrolment,” said Kylie Thomas, vice-president academic and research.
While the hoped-for enrolment spike did not happen, it has not slid further — a positive sign.
“We’ve certainly maintained where we were at this time last year and I think we are well-positioned for growth,” said Thomas, pointing out a host of new programs are being offered, others expanded and international interest continues to increase.
“I’m optimistic that as the year progresses we’ll see some increase.”
RDP Students’ Association president Savannah Snow said it’s been great to see students back.
“I think that even though we have a lot of blended, a lot of online and a lot of hy-flex, we’re going to see a lot of students on campus, which is fantastic.”
Many events are already planned for students and will be offered with measures in place to ensure they remain safe.
Masks must be worn in all learning spaces and are encouraged any time it is difficult to maintain two-metre physical distancing. The students’ association was a significant driver in getting vaccination walk-in clinics, which will run Sept. 8-9 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. in one of the campus gymnasiums.
At least 150 of RDP’s 6,200 students will begin classes in new programs: Bachelor of Science in Biological Sciences, Bachelor of Arts in Psychology, Bachelor of Science in Psychology, University Arts Diploma and University Sciences Diploma.
Other programs are also drawing more students. The Bachelor of Commerce University Transfer program added 17 more students — a 29 per cent increase. Legal Assistant Diploma enrolment is up 24 per cent, or by 16 students; the Early Learning and Child Care Certificate and Diploma program has grown by nine per cent, or 22 students; and the Business Administration Diploma program has grown 10 per cent, adding 30 students.
As well, the practical nursing program is adding a new winter cohort and more spots have been added to medical lab assistant program, said Thomas.
“At this time, we certainly are continuing to pursue program breadth and expansion,” said Thomas, adding that a bachelor of education degree is in the works. “We’re hoping to hear about that, certainly within the next coming weeks.”
By fall 2022, RDP hopes to have its first students in Bachelor of Education and Bachelor of Business Administration degree programs.
Thomas said the new and expanded programs are being driven by demand.
“We’re trying to maintain foundational flexibility and choice, so aligning the resources where the demand is.”
As an example, the boost in the nursing program is a response to widely publicized nursing shortages.
The trades programs, which rely on apprenticeships in the region and so are directly affected by the ebbs and flows of the provincial economy, remained steady this year with 1,500 students enrolled.
An especially bright spot has been international student enrolment, which has jumped 55 per cent to 280 students, despite international pandemic-related travel restrictions and other red tape challenges.
“And this is in the midst of the pandemic,” said Nunoda. “I think it’s a tremendous accomplishment on the part of international education and, obviously, we want to to push that number even higher.
“But a lot of that will depend on the lifting of the travel bans, particularly from India. We’ll continue to monitor that situation, but I’m pretty optimistic and positive where we are.”
Nunoda stressed that while attracting more international students is a key RDP strategy, domestic students will always have first consideration for open spaces.
“International students will never, ever displace a domestic student from a program. That’s absolutely a guarantee — and has to be on our part.”
Going forward, RDP will continue to monitor where the demand for program graduates is and respond, said Nunoda.
“If we do not change programs as the labour market shifts we’re going to be left behind,” said Nunoda. “That agility is critical to our academic planning.”