Conestoga news

February 2, 2024 11:10 AM

President's Message: The Conestoga Story

Conestoga was established in Kitchener in 1967. Since then, the college has expanded significantly to deliver in-demand career and skills training to more than 45,000 students in eight communities and their surrounding areas in Kitchener, Waterloo, Cambridge, Guelph, Brantford, Milton, Stratford and Ingersoll.

Our growth over the last few years has been tied to our mission - to meet workforce demands in the communities we serve.

Our catchment area is unique: It includes a population of more than 1.2 million and is located in one of the economic engines of both Ontario and Canada. The economy in southwestern Ontario is very comprehensive compared to other communities and covers a wide range of employers, including health, business, manufacturing, trades, and, of course IT, given the region is part of the Waterloo-Toronto Innovation corridor. The GDP growth rate here is higher than the rest of the province and country.

Canada is experiencing its lowest fertility rates of all time, which has led to major skills shortages. Other communities across the country are experiencing a similar need for skilled full-time workers, and the provincial and federal governments responded by encouraging growth in immigration and international student enrolment over the last five years.

International students are needed to fill employment gaps to ensure the economic prosperity of the communities we serve over the next 20 years. Our programs and curriculum are developed in consultation with Program Advisory Committee members, made up of local employers, so we understand their workforce needs and challenges.

Conestoga was aware of these looming workforce shortages more than 25 years ago. We welcomed our first international students in the mid-1990s, at a financial loss, and it took several years for us to refine our international student recruitment strategy and build international enrolment. Since then, Conestoga has become internationally recognized for its quality of education, providing industry-relevant training and skills development critical to addressing the province’s labour shortages.

More than 75 per cent of our international students come to Canada with a degree from a reputable international university - and at Conestoga they can pursue additional credentials through delivery of more than 250 programs in health, engineering, advanced manufacturing and food processing, trades, IT, and business, among others.

As international student enrolment has grown, Conestoga has responded by using operating surpluses to modernize buildings, expand campus locations, invest in new equipment and labs, develop a comprehensive suite of support services for our students, purchase additional student residences, develop programming to meet the needs of employers both today and over the next two decades, and expand our employee base to support such growth. We have hired more than 500 full-time employees over the last three years.

Over the last five years, we have used our revenue to invest more than $500 million back into the communities we serve to build state-of-the-art facilities in key sectors like health care and the trades. We invested approximately $150 million in the first phase of the Conestoga Skilled Trades Campus in Cambridge, and another $200 million is earmarked for phase two which is now underway. When this second phase is complete, it will be the largest, most modern trades training facility in Canada.

A major expansion of our health care facilities and training programs is also underway. The college has invested approximately $50 million in cutting-edge facilities and laboratories equipped with the latest instruments, tools, and infrastructure for expanded programming in health sciences, biomedical studies, expanded Personal Support Worker training, and our new stand-alone Bachelor of Nursing degree.

These investments support domestic students as well, and we have seen this market grow by approximately 10 per cent over the last year. This winter, domestic enrolment grew by 47 per cent, and we expect it will grow to 50 per cent in the spring and fall terms.

Domestic tuition was cut by 10 per cent four years ago and has been frozen ever since. Ontario’s tuition is now among the lowest in Canada and infrastructure funding has not been available. It would be nearly impossible to manage the college effectively on domestic tuition and grants to meet the needs of employers for a skilled workforce, especially in a region that is growing economically.

To help with costs, other colleges have contracted curriculum to private colleges, but we have chosen not to take this path. In fact, Conestoga has never partnered with a private college - we have taken on financial risks ourselves by investing our revenues in our own communities. We are now a key part of downtown revitalization projects in several communities including Brantford, Kitchener, Waterloo and Guelph. We have also bought or leased seven new residences over the last three years to increase accommodation options for both our domestic and international students.

Our revenues may be high, but so are the costs associated with delivering the breadth of quality programming we have available at Conestoga to ensure our students are career-ready when they graduate. Job placement rates for international students are approximately the same as they are for domestic students: 85 per cent secure employment within six months of graduation. About 65 per cent stay in the community and take jobs in southwestern Ontario.

Overall, Conestoga graduates contribute about $6.2 billion to the Ontario economy every year.

Our students have also contributed to economic expansion in our region through their own expenditures as well as their part-time work while they are studying. Overall, Conestoga has been an important factor in the economic success of our catchment area, which leads the province.

We also pride ourselves in the delivery of programming and supports to help international students on their educational journey in Canada. The safety and well-being of our students has always been our priority.

The college invests approximately $50 million annually on domestic and international student support services that include health and wellness programs, food security and nutrition programs, and housing and employment supports.

The full impact of the federal government’s cap on international students remains unknown, but we can say with certainty that we have been unfairly grouped with what the government and other critics refer to as “bad actors in the sector.”

We agree that changes need to be made, especially in relation to private colleges, but the federal government’s decision should have been phased in over time and done in consultation. Instead, Canada’s reputation as a destination for post-secondary education is threatened. The recent changes are not helpful for students trying to apply to Canada and contribute to our economy, and there will be an impact on employers attempting to hire qualified personnel.

We have also received queries about the provincial government’s announcement on January 26 introducing new measures to protect students. Conestoga will support these measures. We are already meeting housing needs, we are already ensuring student supports, and we are already delivering quality programming.

We will do the same going forward.

John Tibbits
Conestoga College Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning

This message was distributed to all Conestoga employees on February 2 on behalf of President John Tibbits.