Is Canadian forestry education a dying field of study?

Forestry education must be responsive to social change

Canadian forestry is undoubtedly an important discipline, especially in light of climate change, for many ecological, socio-cultural, and commercial reasons, including the large amount of carbon forests hold. Climate change makes forestry education and research in Canada essential because Canada’s forests are changing too. The occurrence and severity of insect and disease outbreaks, forest fires, flooding, temperature fluctuations and droughts affect our vast forests and are all exacerbated by climate change. Thus, it only makes sense for Canada to strive to be a global leader in forestry education and research.

Trends and misperceptions

Despite the importance of forestry, it has been well documented that undergraduate student enrollment in post-secondary education in this field has been fluctuating over time (e.g. Sharik et al. 2015) and has declined since the high enrollments observed in the 1970s (e.g. Interim National Recruitment Strategy Steering Committee 2006; Nyland 2008). Studies associate this trend with various explanations that are usually misperceptions, such as (1) a negative industry image because forestry is associated with unsustainable clearcut logging (Hoberg et al. 2003), (2) unidentifiable career outcomes (Sharik et al. 2015), (3) forestry being a low-technology sector (Hoberg et al. 2003), and (4) low income post-graduation (Sharik et al. 2015). I think there are additional, relevant factors explaining these enrollment trends, including differences in forestry curricula across post-secondary institutions and an overall unclear definition of forestry as a field of study. A re-examination of these enrollment trends in Canada is timely and important, especially as a potential structural change to Canada’s first academic forestry faculty, the Faculty of Forestry at the University of Toronto, is currently being explored (for more information, see here).

An increase in forestry-related degree programs

Although past observations do not show a strong pattern of increasing student enrollment in undergraduate forestry programs, recent enrollment numbers at the University of British Columbia’s Faculty of Forestry continue to increase in all their forestry-related degree programs, including their Bachelor of Science in Urban Forestry program, which was created in 2015 (for more information, see here). The rapid increase of students enrolled in their Bachelor of Science in Urban Forestry program is likely, in part, due to the increasing recognition of urban forests as vital components to healthy, sustainable cities, and urban trees provide ecological, social, and even economic benefits and values that contribute to not only the tree’s owner but the entire community. I believe this is also partly a result of a switch in student values to programs that center on environmental and sustainability-based learning considering climate change and its implications on forests. Moreover, large growth in Canadian forestry education over the past five years has likely been helped by growth in foreign economies with growing interest in sustainable forest management – leading to increases in international students.

Social change

To continue attracting undergraduate students to the field, perhaps even to see added growth, I think forestry education must be responsive to social change. This is highlighted through the success urban forestry programs, such as the University of British Columbia’s Bachelor of Science in Urban Forestry degree program. Thus, the need for greater development of responsive curricula is critical to attract and retain students. This is not to say that traditional forestry education should no longer be taught. Moreover, I urge recruitment processes to undergo change to ensure they communicate what programs look like now in terms of their priorities (i.e. the content they want to teach students), prospective job opportunities, and current research. Maintaining and enhancing university partnerships with public and private sectors may help to determine such priorities, prospective job opportunities, and direct research programs to meet public and private sector needs.

 

 

References

Hoberg G, Guy R, Hinch S, Kozak RA, McFarlane P, Watts SB (2003) Image and enrolments. Forum 10: 22-23.

Interim National Recruitment Strategy Steering Committee (2006) The crisis in post-secondary enrollments in forestry programs: a call to action for Canada’s future forestry professional/technical workforce. The Forestry Chronicle 82: 57-62.

Nyland RD (2008) The decline in forestry education enrollment – some observations and opinions. Bosque 29: 105-108.

Sharik TL, Lilieholm RJ, Lindquist W, Richardson WW (2015) Undergraduate enrollment in natural resource programs in the United States: trends, drivers, and implications for the future of natural resource professions. Journal of Forestry 113: 538-551.

 


Justin M. Gaudon, PhD candidate

Faculty of Forestry, University of Toronto