International enrolment at Thompson Rivers University during the COIVD-19 pandemic has been better than expected, saving jobs and shrinking the post-secondary institution’s projected deficit.
TRU is now projecting a $3-million deficit this fiscal year, rather than the anticipated $9 million, due to the lessened blow to enrolment.
Hard times, however, are still foreseen if enrolment forecasts remain dire and the university doesn’t continue taking steps to mitigate its expenses.
Prior to the fall semester, TRU anticipated a domestic enrolment decrease of five to eight per cent lower than what it was in fall 2019 and 30 per cent fewer international students.
After the course add/drop deadline date, the numbers were better than expected, with international enrolment down approximately 13 per cent from last fall and domestic enrolment down one per cent, according to the university. Meanwhile, Open Learning enrolment is up 4.6 per cent.
“There’s a lot of work still to be done and there’s a lot of uncertainty,” said TRU vice president of finance and administration Matt Milovick. “It’s unfortunate people’s careers and jobs have been interrupted as a result. We will get back to a place of strength and we’re building for the future.”
Jobs were cut in early October, but thanks to international enrolment being better than expected, there were far fewer CUPE employees laid off than the 120 layoff notices that went out this past spring. In total, 14 CUPE employees were laid off permanently, 12 employees took temporary leaves of absence and 18 employees are working reduced hours. One employee who was issued a layoff notice opted for early retirement and 11 workers bumped others to secure new roles.
In all, 25 people lost their jobs and 30 others are on leave or working reduced hours, but 64 layoff notices were rescinded as a result of improved enrolment over initial projections.
“We avoided most layoffs for now,” Milovick said, noting between 10 and 12 administrative positions were also eliminated through layoffs or by not filling open positions.
In order to save money, the university is not filling vacant positions and is offering its first early retirement incentive program to employees over the age of 55.
Milovick said there was interest from about 115 employees across all employees groups, with the packages essentially equivalent to six months’ pay and benefits.
Between existing unfilled vacancies and early retirements, TRU is leaving about 200 positions vacant, but up to 40 per cent may eventually have to be refilled where demand warrants.
Administration has $6 million forecast in expenses this year for the early retirements, which will be a one-time cost, with savings to come in subsequent years.
Through its second quarter, the university is expecting revenues of $222 million against $225 million in expenses for its 2020-2021 budget, to be finalized in March.
Salary and compensation initially pegged at $149 million is now up to $151 million as of the second quarter, with Milovick noting increases include teacher costs for the more-than-expected students and allowance for early retirement packages.
The retained international population means TRU will see a $10 million drop in tuition revenue, rather than the anticipated $20 million.
The university, however, is still anticipating further erosion of its international student population next year as the pandemic persists and a large number of students graduate from their programs this school year.
Milovick said this year’s drop in international enrolment was softened because many first-year international student are starting their programs online from their home countries.
“Of course, the trick will be ensuring they can get here to finish their programs and, as the pandemic moves along, that creates some challenges,” Milovick said.
Most international students study abroad for the experience, which has been hampered by pandemic travel restrictions.
Milovick said some international students have applied for programs with partially completed VISA applications due to backlogs in their home countries, so the university expects more fluctuation come the winter semester.
Right now, only a small number of classes are being held on campus, such as trades programs, with all theory-based courses online, but Milovick said the university is considering bringing back more in-person instruction.
“We’d certainly like to see more bodies on campus if it’s safe to do so,” he said.
If TRU were to take no further cost saving actions and international enrolment trends remain bleak, the university projects having a $7-million deficit by 2023-2024, which could mean more layoffs.
“Probably, given the early retirement programs and other things, it’ll be about managing those vacancies rather than laying off people that are here,” Milovick said.
TRU plans to cover its $3-million deficit using reserve funds.
Prior to the pandemic, the university was projecting a budget surplus this year of about $9 million.