Data in Decline: The Gradual Demise of Canada's National Data Systems for Higher Education

In 2010 Canada spent 2.8% of GDP on higher education, the highest level of expenditure within the OECD, but we know less about higher education in this country than almost any other developed nation. Our national data systems for higher education, the backbone that supports the development of evidence-based policy, research, and informed public discussion of issues facing our universities and colleges, are embarrassingly inadequate.

Major cuts to funding at Statistics Canada have had important implications for this federal agency’s ability to fulfill its mandate as Canada’s national statistical agency, and while the impact of underfunding has been felt across a range of policy sectors, higher education has been hit particularly hard. There is a history of long delays in the reporting of even basic data, a problem that has been noted by the OECD. Over the last few years Statistics Canada and other relevant federal departments have rationalized their portfolio of data collection instruments in response to changing fiscal realities, including discontinuing a number of important surveys related to higher education, such as the National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth, and the Survey of Intellectual Property Commercialization in the Higher Education Sector. Statistics Canada eliminated Education Matters: Insights on Education, Learning and Training in Canada, an important forum for the presentation and analysis of statistical data on education and postsecondary education in Canada. In 2012 it announced the discontinuation of the University and College Academic Staff System (UCASS), Canada’s only national source of data on full-time university faculty (number, gender, rank, age salaries, etc.), and the universities themselves were forced to step in to maintain this very important data set. In short, Canada’s national statistical agency is collecting less data on higher education students than it did a decade ago, and it is no longer collecting any data on university faculty.

Recent policy discussions have highlighted other gaps. The elimination of the long-form census has had serious implications for our ability to look at educational attainment by region or community. The notion of a “skills gap” has received considerable attention, and illuminated the fact that almost no one has confidence in our national labour market data systems.

There are entire sectors of our higher education system where data are either missing or weak. There is a growing private higher education sector in this country, including an estimated 19 private universities, 67 private colleges, and over 1300 career colleges, that is largely invisible because there is little systematic collection of data from this sector. We have no national data on how many students are enrolled in these institutions, graduation rates, or almost anything that would allow us to compare the performance of the public and private sectors.

There are entire sectors of our higher education system where data are either missing or weak.

There are also huge gaps in our understanding of public colleges and institutes which have received far less attention in our national data systems than the university sector.

While the absence of data, research or analysis has certainly never prevented a government from making decisions, the current situation raises serious questions about the ability of governments across the country to monitor and improve a sector that is one of our nation’s largest areas of public expenditures. Some other countries have systematically expanded their national data systems for higher education so that they can monitor and assess developments in this important public sector. The Bologna reforms in Europe have led to significant investments in student information systems and national quality assessment mechanisms.

Complaining about the state of our national data systems has become the new Canadian pastime for the twenty-first century, but the answer is not to simply rebuild all that has been torn down, but rather to develop, fund and implement a new national data strategy for the sector that will provide a more solid foundation for the development of evidence-based policy and informed public discussion. We need more national longitudinal data on students so that we can learn more about their transitions from school to postsecondary education, about the factors that contribute to their success in universities and colleges, and about the relationship between their education and their pathways into and through the labour market. We need data on university and college faculty so that we can understand the evolving nature of academic work, the degree to which the balance between full-time and contingent faculty is shifting, and the implications of these changes on the learning environment and research productivity. In short, we need to take a step back and rethink what it is we need to know about higher education in Canada in order to understand where we are and identify key challenges and possible solutions. Canada needs to strategically reinvest in its national data system for higher education.

Glen A. Jones is the Ontario Research Chair in Postsecondary Education Policy and Measurement and Professor of Higher Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto.

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