We’ve all heard of Open Universities, and we’ve all heard of Open Data. But have you ever heard of Open University Data?
Me neither. And there’s a reason for that. Two, actually. Lack of volition, and lack of co-ordination.
Lack of volition is the easy one. Higher Education is a prestige economy. The cardinal rule is: do not diminish your institution’s prestige. The institution must be presented in the best possible light at all times. Therefore, there is no incentive – absolutely none – for anyone to do anything that might put the institution in a negative light vis-à-vis other institutions.
(My favourite example of this is one time when we asked a group of institutions to provide us some institutional data in .csv format, which was ALREADY PUBLICLY AVAILABLE in .pdf, so that we could avoid the tedious business of transcribing a few of thousand data points from a couple of hundred documents. We were denied. Because… well we never quite worked that out. I suppose it’s simply because they can. In any event, an external company we use to do low-end data scraping ended up a couple of hundred dollars wealthier as a result.)
Not that this means institutions don’t produce or use data. They do – lots of it. What they don’t do is put data out in the public realm in a way that would allow unfavourable comparisons to be drawn. And they’re not precluded from producing comparable inter-institutional data, either. The U-15, for example, produce a huge amount of comparable data. I’ve never seen the full list of stuff that gets covered by the U-15 data sharing agreement, but I’m told it’s terrifyingly large, allowing for some truly meaningful, granular comparisons. They just don’t publish it. Indeed, I’ve been told by someone who’s seen the agreement (and whom I have no reason to doubt) that there is data in there that institutions are not even permitted to share with their own governing boards. Which, if true, would be interesting, to say the least.
(Yes, yes, there are the various regional common data initiatives. But on key issues where anyone would actually care about results, data is usually either fudged or displayed with so many caveats as to be essentially useless. And in Ontario at least, the data is deliberately spread over 20-odd websites precisely to make it as hard as humanly possible to actually use data for comparative purposes. So, no, that doesn’t count.)
Now, none of this makes Canadian universities distinctive. This happens all over the world. The difference is that other countries have national ministries of education that can, on occasion, push institutions to produce common data. If institutions start to whine about it, the ministry simply starts to withhold cheques (provinces could play this role, of course, but with the exception of BC none of ours ever really seem to try). All we have is Statscan, which does not have the power of the pursestrings to compel data (in theory it could use the Stats Act to compel data, but that’s the administrative equivalent of going nuclear, so in practice it doesn’t happen).
So yeah, the rest of the Anglophone commonwealth have ways of publicly comparing research performance at the department level, but we don’t. In Australia, every program in every school can tell you the exact cut-off mark it took to enter that program, but we can’t. In Bulgaria – BULGARIA – they can do a Ross Finnie and tell you average salaries for every program in every institution in the country for five years out, because everyone is required to link their graduate data into the social security database. Here, there’s just nobody to co-ordinate the effort, or override the cover-your-ass, never-give-out-information-
There are ways to solve this problem. Unfortunately, nearly all of them involve coercion. The current system is just too convenient for too many people to be abandoned without a fight.