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Struggling Schools

Universities and colleges across the country are struggling with reduced enrolments and apparently reduced interest in forestry as a career. 

(Also, please see our Tech Update section on Forestry Schools - http://www.forestnet.com/archives/feb_2001/tech_update.htm) in our February 2001 Journal, for more information).

By John Clarke

The faculty of forestry at the University of BC, like most other forestry faculties, is seeing reduced enrolments. The forest industry itself may need to make further improvements in its public image to attract more students to forestry studies.

At a time of year when going back to school is on many minds, the case of the duelling environmentalists is as good a metaphor as any for what ails the forestry faculties across the country- declining student enrolments. It's getting harder for the universities and colleges to attract or "recruit" high-schoolers to train for careers in an industry seen increasingly as in decline itself. Patrick Moore, one of the founders of the signature environmentalist organization Greenpeace, has opened an Internet website beamed at the schools to try to correct that image. 

Coming from an academic background himself, he helped give Greenpeace a legitimacy that caught the public's attention. In recent years he's become an outspoken advocate for the forest industry and on his website he claims the forests are growing back in North America, not receding. "Environmentalists never talk about that," he says. To which Vicki Husband of the Sierra Club says "phooey". "The World Resources Institute in Washington has been studying this question and they don't know if the forests are growing back," she says. "The Canadian Forest Service doesn't know either. But old growth certainly is receding and we're simplifying the eco-system, especially in plantation forests." 

Which information is a student to believe? When will the confusion be resolved? Although student enrolment historically goes up and down, there's been an unmistakable trend downward in recent years. In 1999-2000, the last year for which statistics are available, there was an overall drop of eight per cent, according to the Association of University Forestry Schools of Canada, with no noticeable recovery since. 

Some deans say this year they'll be lucky to hold onto the numbers they have. At Moncton University, the 1999-2000 enrolment was 136, 12 down from a year earlier. The same trend was reflected at the other principal forestry schools. New Brunswick 472 (533), Lakehead 253 (276), Alberta 177 (229), Northern BC 301 (319) and University of BC 553 (627). Laval University in Quebec City was the single exception. Since 1995-96 there's been steady growth each year 287, 319, 344, 357, 389. 

Dean Denis Briere gives credit to Laval's geomatic programs, which emphasize the new sciences of forestry computer-assisted forest management, satellite imagery, preventive systems and so on and the fact that "forestry has a big presence in Quebec all over the place." Not more than in BC, of course, which would make the undergraduate decline there harder to understand, were it not for the tectonic changes the industry has undergone in the last few years. 

The 1994 Forest Practices Code, brought in to answer militant environmentalism and sales boycotts in Europe, drew a flood of students from across the country, including the entire graduating class at New Brunswick the following year. But the Code was soon under heavy attack for its bureaucratic rigidities and the provincial government is now busily backtracking from the heavy-handed management style that attracted those earlier graduates. Ecologist pressures, cleverly manipulated by imaginative protests by Greenpeace and others, have spawned a lot of public misgivings about logging practices. 

Dean David McLean says the University of New Brunswick spends a lot of time promoting forestry as "still a good career option." But the high schoolers don't consider it an option as much as they used to. "Forestry is still one of our largest industries," he says. "Forty per cent of our students get work on graduation, something like 90 per cent eventually." Five years ago the faculty name was changed to forestry and environmental management to emphasize a new holistic approach to forestry. As a result the school has been getting a good number of students with other degrees and from colleges with technological backgrounds, but not as many first-year students. McLean isn't sure whether enrolment patterns simply reflect a cyclical industry or something else. But the recent numbers suggest that they do. 

From the mid-1980s to the early 1990s the universities took a real hit, recovered somewhat to the mid-1990s and have now gone down again. According to Dr Peter Marshall, who is the BC representative on the Canadian Forestry Accreditation Board, the problems are more than environmentalism. People are getting the idea from newspaper headlines that the whole industry is in decline. They think forestry is a dead end and don't want their kids to go into it. The universities and colleges are trying to pump more information into the high schools, especially information about the technological opportunities in forestry. But the challenge, says Marshall, is to co-ordinate the effort. That may not be so easy to do. 

Some in the industry, especially in BC, are beginning to wonder out loud if they can get by with fewer, not more, people, so costly have been some of the changes imposed on them by legislation and intensifying political pressure. Forestry used to be a remote industry, way out there in the wilderness. Now it has become more people-oriented. Communities are more aware and more involved in the political processes. With shrinking bottom lines some corporations are beginning to think they're fully staffed up. It's a view not shared at Laval. Briere says studies there continue to show "very high levels of interest by our students, many of whom get employment even before their bachelors." The reports from the universities, including Laval, seem to underline the fact that forestry is far from a homogeneous industry in Canada. 

The regions are distinctive, not only in species but also in management styles and public perceptions. To find an image in sync with all the regions is very difficult. Yet the overall enrolment numbers in recent years do speak to the need for a public image improvement of forestry more closely in line with the industry's own assessment of its value to the community. As for the community and technical colleges, enrolment statistics are not as readily available nationally. But anecdotal evidence suggests the situation there is not materially different from the universities. Even at colleges where there is good government and industry support, perception is stronger than reality. 

Selkirk College in Castlegar, BC and Grande Prairie Regional College in Alberta are probably typical. The head of Selkirk's renewal resources department, Rhys Andrews, says job losses in the woods and mills aren't reflected in professional forestry, yet students think they are. All his graduates in summer 2000 found work in the technical side of the industry and he could have placed many more. Grande Prairie is having trouble getting the 20 to 24 students it would like to have for its four-year resource management course. At the other end of the country Algonquin College in Ontario has had a 67 per cent job placement rate but at others it's been as low as 30 per cent. Not encouraging for enrolment. 

In a recently concluded study of college enrolment, Forest Renewal BC found that "most educational institutions do not have the time or resources to promote their forestry-related programs properly." Turmoil and downsizing over the last five years have clearly hurt forestry's image as a stable employer. The threat of huge American countervailing and anti-dumping duties can only contribute to that image. But the industry will always be there, needing a supply of trained personnel, even if American threats limit its growth by limiting sales into their markets. 

Marshall says forestry is bigger than the industry in that the resource always needs tending, whatever the cycles dictated by nature and the markets. So recruitment into the resource faculties will have to remain a priority. As for the duelling environmentalists, there seem to be no enrolment problems in their industry. There will probably be plenty for them to argue about in the schools and anywhere else they can get their voices heard.

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