Supporting student enrolment during a pandemic

- Erin King

Two students wearing masks walk in front of the Jamie Cassels Centre.
The good thinking behind SEM has helped UVic mitigate impacts of COVID-19 and support student success during a difficult year.

When the Strategic Enrolment Management (SEM) Plan launched in 2019, no one could have predicted that year two would involve a global pandemic. Implementing the plan’s tactics that focus on the student experience has been a challenge — along with the abrupt transition to online learning and teaching. But the good thinking behind SEM has helped UVic mitigate impacts of COVID-19 and support student success during a difficult year.

The SEM Plan guides university recruitment, retention and student success initiatives. In practice, that means the university is committed to recruiting and retaining the very best undergraduate students, including those from under-represented populations, diversifying the international undergraduate student population, and increasing our enrolment of Indigenous students and proportion of graduate students.

Our six SEM goals are long-term and reflect commitments articulated in other institutional plans, including the Strategic Framework. Many of the initiatives we had underway when COVID-19 hit helped guide us through the pandemic, and we’ve actually accelerated in new and unanticipated ways.

Jim Dunsdon, AVP Student Affairs and Chair of the Undergraduate Student Recruitment, Admission and Registration Committee

Recruitment and enrolment

Despite the impacts of the pandemic, UVic met all its enrolment targets last year. We were particularly successful in meeting student demand for courses in Summer Session 2020, with enrolment up 10 per cent compared to the previous summer.

UVic continues its efforts to diversify the student population with new entrance scholarships for women and Indigenous students in the Faculty of Engineering, targeted recruitment programs for Indigenous students on Vancouver Island, and a comprehensive program for students with lived experience in care. Work is also underway to attract more graduate students by improving UVic’s international reputation as a research-intensive university.

In 2020, UVic also enhanced the entrance award program, awarding more than $8.5 million to new students. High-achieving students were also offered incentives like new research opportunities in a pilot program in humanities and engineering. Through initiatives like these, the number of first-year students with a 90+ per cent average in 2020/21 was double that of the previous year and we continue on an upwards trajectory.

UVic’s international enrolments have declined by three per cent this year with more challenges looming for all post-secondary institutions in Canada as travel restrictions and federal quarantine rules continue. UVic’s new Jan. 31 application deadline, which is several weeks earlier than in prior years, is a long-term SEM tactic that might help. “The sooner we get an offer out, the more competitive we are for all students, including high-achieving and international populations,” says Dunsdon. Indeed, undergraduate offers have increased by 21 per cent compared to this time last year. UVic has also established an International Enrolment Recovery Team to ensure UVic remains on track to achieve international targets.

Dynamic learning

Experiential learning is really at the heart of a UVic education. We’ve been remarkably successful in creating opportunities for hands-on learning this year in spite of the pandemic.

Laurene Sheilds, Executive Director of Learning and Teaching Support
and Innovation and Chair of the Undergraduate Student Retention and Success Committee

UVic placed 1,119 students in co-op terms (mostly virtual) this fall—well above the national average and exceeding the 1,040 placements in the previous fall. “When many other Canadian universities have seen major declines in co-op participation in the face of COVID-19, we have done exceptionally well,” says Sheilds.

Co-op isn’t the only experiential learning area in which we shined, either. The number of students participating in community-engaged learning more than doubled in the 2019/20 year. While these numbers dipped slightly in 2020, the number of community partners increased, setting us up for a very strong upcoming year. Academic units also modified some requirements and offered new opportunities to ensure students could gain invaluable practica experience.

Student life

SEM informed many of our decisions around student life initiatives this year. UVic opened up the bursary program for a second round, awarding almost $700,000 in additional funding for students facing financial difficulties. “A major focus of our SEM plan is on providing greater access to UVic for under-represented populations,” says Dunsdon. “Knowing these groups were disproportionally impacted by the effects of COVID-19, we worked hard to ensure additional funds were made available to support them during a difficult year.”

The launch of the new Student Wellness Centre and SupportConnect, a 24/7 mental health line, were vital supports for our students as they dealt with the mental, emotional and physical toll of the pandemic.  According to Joel Lynn, Executive Director of Student Services and a member of the Student Retention and Success Committee, “although these were not explicitly listed in SEM, they are integral to the well-being of students and the success of our SEM goals.”

Peer-to-peer connection is an important element of student success and retention, with additional challenges in a predominantly online academic year. Staff worked quickly to develop health and safety measures and new programming to allow 800 direct-entry first-year students to live on-campus and create an in-person UVic community this year. In addition, UVic launched the New Student Connect Program to engage first-year and upper-year students virtually. More than 3,000 students registered in the program—engaging with student leaders for mentorship, support in addressing academic and personal challenges, and building enduring friendships. Leaders are exploring how the program can continue post-COVID-19. 

The year ahead

Strategic enrolment at UVic isn’t slowing down anytime soon. “We’ll need to remain innovative and ambitious as we move into the coming months,” explains Dunsdon. SEM committees have several projects in the works, including a significant investment to create five new full-time Indigenous support roles in the Office of the Registrar and Student Services to foster positive experiences for Indigenous students. A new academic advising model, campus wellness strategy and new training to support the graduate student/supervisor relationship are also in development. “These are just some examples of the good work across campus to support our students. We’re excited to engage with the campus community, refocus our efforts and move forward with intention in the coming year.”


In this story

Keywords: administrative, international

Publication: The Ring

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